Irresponsible for PUAS to wash its hands of dirty water

I was aghast at the audacity of Ir. V. Subramaniam, general manager for operations of Perbadanan Urus Air Selangor (PUAS) to shift the blame to others for his corporation's failure to produce wholesome water fit for human consumption (NST, Nov 25, 2003).

He contended that consumers should play a part by reporting the occurrences of dirty water and told them to clean or change the existing galvanized iron (GI) pipes used in internal plumbing systems. He also attributed the causes of dirty water to old asbestos cement (AC) pipes, problems resulting from repairs to pipe leaks/bursts, and shoddy work by housing developers' contractors. In short, he wants others to share the blames with PUAS.

Over the years, I have written many articles to the public media highlighting water woes in the Klang Valley particularly on the subject of dirty tap water. All are now posted in my website. At the risk of being accused of repeating myself to attract publicity, I feel obligated, in the public interest, to refute some of Ir. Subramamiam's rather misleading statements that may be swallowed wholesale by the innocent public.

First and foremost, Ir. Subramaniam stated that for action to be taken, consumers should alert PUAS if they received dirty water from their taps. With so many complaints of dirty water in the newspapers and an increasingly rampant installation of domestic water filters in the Klang Valley, it is naïve on the part of PUAS to pretend that there is not much dirty water problem in the Klang Valley. One can only conclude that, like him, many senior personnel of PUAS are behaving like ostriches.

Ir. Subramaniam also contended that PUAS have means to flush the distribution systems to rid them of sediments accumulated in pipes. If so why PUAS is not using them at least in areas that are getting dirty water years on end? Systematic scouring of mains is part and parcel of the routine maintenance work to be undertaken by any water undertaking. But PUAS cannot scour mains on a holistic approach because it does not have up-to-date records of the pipe networks and adequate and properly designed scour valves to do the job. Therefore at best PUAS can only carry out scouring on a limited scale using fire hydrants as scour valves.

Yes, old GI pipes need replacement. This is primarily because of encrustation of pipe walls, which diminishes the bore of the pipes resulting in reduced flows. My house is more than thirty years old and all the GI pipes used for internal plumbing were replaced only recently. The quality of water coming out of my kitchen tap now is still the same as before, but the flow has greatly improved. Again, houses in other states in Malaysia and other countries have also used GI pipes in their plumbing systems but one hardly hears of any complaint of dirty water from them. Why dirty water is so prevalent only in the Klang Valley?

Old AC pipes, which are prone to leaking were also blamed for the dirty water. Similarly, these pipes have been used extensively in all other states in Malaysia and in many other countries. Again, we only hear of dirty water problems in the Klang Valley. And, why is it that most complaints on dirty water are raised only in recent years in the Klang Valley when pipe leakage has always been a perennial problem in Malaysia?

The water supply to the area where Ir. Subramanian and I live comes from AC pipes, which have been in existence for over thirty years. The quality of my tap water is still tolerable at times but I would not be so foolhardy as Ir. Subramanian to drink directly from the tap.

Apart from AC pipes, others are leaking and bursting as well. Therefore mere replacement of all AC pipes cannot be a cure-all for the dirty water problems in the Klang Valley, if pipe leaks and bursts are the sole cause. To carry out pipeline rehabilitation and/or replacement a planned systematic and holistic approach is needed. PUAS should first prepare a plan showing the physical works, both immediate and long term, required to bring the water distribution networks to a steady state. In the water industry, this plan is known as underground Asset Management Plan (AMP). Without an AMP, PUAS traditionally adopts an ad hoc pipe replacement when recurring difficulties have become intolerable. This form of action is not cost effective and does not identify the root causes of the problems.

PUAS has asked for RM1.2 billion to carry AC pipes replacement, but sad to say even if it gets the money it would not be able to proceed effectively as it does not even have updated records of the pipe networks in the Klang Valley, a prerequisite in any pipe rehabilitation/replacement programmes. This lack of information on and understanding of the underground assets is not unexpected when PUAS is still holding fast to its ingrained and long-standing "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" philosophy on water distribution systems.

Ir. Subramaniam also attributed the dirty water problems to pipe repairs not being properly executed, pipes uncapped on site and failure of developers to flush the mains before commissioning the new water reticulation systems. PUAS has relevant and adequate specifications for all these works and as they are directly under its jurisdiction it should have provided adequate site supervision to ensure that all works are carried out as specified. It would be a grave dereliction of duty by PUAS if contractors or developers were allowed to do what they like and to get away with substandard works. So if these substandard works, which have been approved or paid for by PUAS and have subsequently caused the dirty water problems, only PUAS and PUAS alone is to be blamed.

It is quite unbelievable that within the whole of Klang Valley only less than two per cent of the water samples collected by the Ministry of Health for quality tests breached the standards. Early this year, the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin, concerned over the poor quality of water in the Klang Valley, proposed that his ministry would begin laboratory tests on potable water. And only lately it was reported that the results of tests carried out by Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin's ministry were found to be not satisfactory and that tap water quality was poor. It is therefore important that water quality tests should be complemented by another independent body and that the tests results should be made public. It is quite surprising that the results of tests carried out by Tan Sri Muhyddin's ministry were not raised in Ir. Subramaniam's interview with the press.

Lastly, the straw that broke the camel's back was Ir. Subramaniam's statement: "Boiling the water or filtering it may be more harmful as it removes the chlorine which protects the water from all sorts of harmful organisms". Scientific studies have established that chlorine in water may react with other contaminants and cause the formation of carcinogenic substances such as trihalomethanes (THM), which is harmful to human body. I do not know about the filter as I do not own one, but I do know that boiling of water will remove all residual chlorine and kill other bacteria, if any, present in water. It is hoped that his statement has been misquoted. But this is an important issue and surely any misquotation of this nature should not be allowed to remain uncorrected.

It is indeed sad that a senior officer of a water corporation supplying water to over four million residents appears to have so very little grasp of the subject on dirty tap water. It is no wonder that one Dr. K. H Sng of Kuala Lumpur had conjectured, in his letter to the press (NST, Nov 29, 2002) that the department (PUAS) was run by a group of "incompetent nincompoops".

In my personal opinion, it is better for Ir. Subramaniam to open his mouth less and start doing something to improve the water supply.

1. The above article was sent to the editor of Life & Time, NST with a note to say that, on an important issue of this nature, writing based on the opinions of a single person, albeit he may be holding a high position in PUAS, cannot provide a fair view of this subject.

2. My article above serves only one purpose and that is to put the picture in the right perspective and not to run down Ir. Subramaniam.

3. An edited version of the above article was published in Malaysiakini on 15/12/03. 2007