Opinion: Will there be an end to water pollution?

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water supply water disruption river pollution Sungai Gong is polluted after a factory in Jalan Batu Arang, Rawang, Selangor is believed to have discharged effluents into the river. PIX: SYAFIQ AMBAK / MalaysiaGazette / 05 SEPTEMBER 2020
Sungai Gong is polluted after a factory in Jalan Batu Arang, Rawang, Selangor is believed to have discharged effluents into the river.PIX: SYAFIQ AMBAK / MalaysiaGazette / 05 SEPTEMBER 2020

The following article is submitted to the Editorial of Malaysia Gazette by reader, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Maizatun Mustafa from the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM)

The problem of river pollution in Malaysia is getting more serious and affecting a large number of population in various ways. The recent unscheduled water supply cut impacting over one million residents of the Klang Valley happened when the operation of the Sungai Selangor water treatment plants was stopped due to pollution emanated from a machine factory at the raw water source.

Whereas the Kim Kim River pollution incident which happened in Johor in 2019 was due to the illegal dumping of chemical waste by an illegal tyre recycling company causing hundreds of schools to be closed after thousands of people especially the schoolchildren had to be admitted to hospital due to inhalation of toxic fumes.

Both incidences are strong evidence of widespread problems of water pollution that affect water supply availability for various uses, jeopardise public health, and destroy the ecosystem. Once a river is polluted, it is very difficult to reverse the effects of water pollution or to restore the river to a wholesome condition. Removing pollutants from a body of water is also costly and time-consuming, in addition to social and environmental cost endured due to the harm or hardship suffered.

Managing river protection and pollution control in Malaysia are substantially complex as they involve multitude of actions by different authorities and organizations, through different laws, at federal, state and local government levels. However, despite the complexity, long-term and short-term strategies must be identified to resolve the root cause of the problems.

Existing law on river pollution include the Environmental Quality Act 1974, Water Services Industry Act 2006, Local Government Act 1976, Penal Code and state legislation such as the Selangor Waters Management Authority Enactment 1999. However, main concerns of the law relate to strictness of penalty, and effectiveness of enforcement and monitoring. The Sungai Selangor’s recurring pollution from the same factory indicates that issuance of compound alone is not sufficient to ensure compliance and deter pollution. Penalty needs to be made more stringent to commensurate with severity of offences, including mandatory jail sentence or even whipping. The law must empower the regulators to stop factories from production or put them out of business if found liable of severe pollution.

The law should also include provisions on environmental risks including disruption risk and public health risk caused by industrial clusters along rivers. Law should have provisions relating to accidental pollution and contingency plan on emergencies such as water supply cut or health impact. Safeguarding measures including a warning system should be established at downstream areas, which will be directly affected by pollution incidents.

The zoning of industries is another key factor to reduce risks of pollution from industries affecting water intakes or residential areas. Structure Plan, Local Plans and related planning law need to be more definitive including locating polluting industries within downstream areas of a river basin. In this way, the upper reaches of the river system can be protected from major industrial pollution within the lower reaches of the river system.

Legislation is only as good as its enforcement. Effective execution of the law is crucial to ensure compliance and successful prosecution. On the part of pollution victims, it is necessary that tort law and procedural rule are revised to facilitate both private and class actions, and to overcome barriers to success such as the difficulty of proving causation, and the requirement of legal standing. As our rivers continue to face pollution threats, solution to the problems needs to be found immediately. Action need to happen at all levels of government, society and the economy. We must all play our part to protect our precious rivers.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Maizatun Mustafa
Legal Practice Department
Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws
International Islamic University Malaysia
53100 Jalan Gombak
Kuala Lumpur

Editorial note: The views expressed are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysia Gazette.

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