Review of sewerage pact justified

It is good news to some that the Government has announced the reduction of sewerage charges for commercial premises. But more importantly, it is good news to all Malaysians that the whole concept of this privatisation would be reviewed (NST, June 25, 1998).

The privatisation of the nation's sewerage services is one privatisation in Malaysia that seems to remain in the doldrums in spite of the fact that the contract has been in operation for nearly five years now. During this time, major shareholdings in Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) has changed hands twice and sewerage charges have been reviewed twice as well.

This is also one privatisation in Malaysia in which there appears to be no end to controversies, confusion and consumer dissatisfaction which appear unlikely to abate unless a complete review is carried out.

Our dissatisfaction as consumers is not just confined to unreasonable charges. Many other areas of our dissatisfaction have also to be looked into instead of resorting to threats.

It has been reported earlier that the executive chairman of IWK, Dato' Dr. Mohd Aminuddin Rouse had warned that legal action would be instituted against those who fail to settle the sewerage bills. The out-going Director General of the Department of Sewerage Services (DSS), Mr. Lum Weng Kee, was also reported to have said that the 1993 Sewerage Services Act would be amended to empower water authorities to disconnect water supply of those who fail to settle their sewerage bills.

IWK and DSS are obviously trying to go on the offensive to redress the issue of non-payment of sewerage bills. However, their actions have far-reaching implications and may cause another series of embarrassment all round.

Consider the scenario when IWK decides to take those to court for failure to settle their sewerage bills. Assuming that IWK is serving 11 million consumers in Malaysia there will be about 2.5 million sewerage accounts; and if half of them are in default, is it practical for IWK to take out 1.25 million lawsuits against all the defaulters?

IWK claimed that 70% of the sewage treatment plants it took over from the local authorities were malfunctioning. Assuming that they are still malfunctioning and not able to produce effluents complying with the requirements of Environmental Quality Act 1974 (EQA), can IWK justify taking those connected to these malfunctioned plants to court for not settling their sewerage bills?

If new legislation is introduced requiring the water authorities to disconnect water supply for non-payment of sewerage bills, why should the water supply authorities be made to suffer loss of revenue from sale of water because of failings of the privatised operator of sewerage?

Furthermore, if septic tanks are being maintained in such a manner as to continue to achieve the desired effluent quality without desludging services by IWK, has the water authority or any other authorities the right to disconnect water supply to those owners of septic tanks working in good order?

The law may well be challenged for lack of locus standi if water supply is disconnected for non-payment of sewerage bills. A precedent in point is the refusal to renew road tax or driving licence for non-settlement of parking and traffic offences.

In the final analysis, the law of natural justice must prevail. As long as IWK is not performing as expected, it would seem to be unjustified to force us, by legislation or other means, to pay for unsatisfactory service.

The need to carry out a second revision of the sewerage charges, the proposal to amend the 1993 Sewerage Services Act and the threat of legal actions all point to some inherent weaknesses existing in this privatisation exercise.

Could the basic problem not be that the current sewerage systems we have in Malaysia have not reached a level of development where appropriate privatisation can be successfully implemented?

Initially IWK was supposed to take over just over1,800 sewerage plants. But as reported on May 26, it was faced with the task of refurbishing more than 5,300 plants. The number was further increased to 8,000 in June 25. There are many other inconsistent figures reported. For example, the number of septic tanks to be desludged, the length of sewers to be maintained and new ones to be installed, the cost of refurbishment of existing plants and the building of new ones, etc.

It is evident that neither the authority nor IWK had adequate and accurate data on sewerage systems in the country when they entered into this privatisation contract in a hurry.

We, as consumers are generally not against the privatisation of sewerage services and are fully aware of the benefits to health and environment if treatment of sewage is carried out properly. We are not apathetic. We certainly do not have a "flush-and forget" mentality--a rather distasteful statement attributed to Lum of DSS (NST, Life & Times, May 26).

The discontent of many of us is not just only the high and unfair charges, but also dissatisfaction and frustration on the ineffectiveness of IWK's services--especially after much publicity of their objectives towards improving the environmental quality of our rivers and waterways and reducing the risks of outbreak of waterborne diseases.

The role expected of IWK should certainly not just be to give a face-lift to existing sewerage plants with a new coat of paint, but to rehabilitate and really improve them so as to ensure that they perform satisfactorily and comply with EQA.

Similarly, just simply disludging septic tanks without formulating effective programmes to phase them out and replace them with modern and efficient and central sewage treatment plants will also not achieve the principal objective of this privatisation exercise-- a clean environment.

What is at issue is the way the problem of national sewerage disposal is being carried out and the effective action, or the lack of it, taken so far.

In the final analysis, it is to be hoped that both the authority and IWK will be able to see in clear light that Malaysians in general are nice enough people to pay for what is fair both in price and quality of service.

Note: An edited version of the above article was published in The Star (July 16, 1998). 2008