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KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – The fate of Sungai Batang Kali, which is at risk of turning into a dead river as reported by Bernama last month, is still hazy.
Although there are various agencies and authorities involved in the management and conservation of rivers, the Sungai Batang Kali pollution issue has revealed gaping loopholes in regulations related to safeguarding rivers in Malaysia, according to water quality expert Dr Zaki Zainudin.
The loopholes relate to aquaculture farms and other pollution sources as the effluents discharged by certain premises are not subject to provisions under the existing regulations.
In its article, Bernama had reported that the crystal clear waters of the 20-kilometre-long Sungai Batang Kali – which is a major tributary of Sungai Selangor and flows down from the foothills of Genting Highlands before joining the main river in Hulu Yam Lama in Hulu Selangor district, Selangor – has turned murky over the last five years due to human activities, which has affected the livelihoods of the local communities, including the Orang Asli.
Residents living nearby have claimed that the pollution is caused mainly by a red tilapia aquaculture farm located on a 0.41-hectare site in the downstream portion of the river, as well as projects currently under development in the upstream area.
In response to the article, Selangor state executive councillor for Tourism, Environment and Green Technology, and Orang Asli Affairs Hee Loy Sian had said that the aquaculture farm is not subject to the Emission and Discharge of Pollutants Regulations (State of Selangor) 2012 – under the Selangor Water Management Authority (LUAS) Enactment 1999 – as it covers an area of less than 50 hectares.
He also said all the other activities involving the river’s water resource, including other farms and sand washing, are licensed under the regulations concerned.
Zaki, meanwhile, said although aquaculture activities near Sungai Batang Kali are registered with the Selangor Fisheries Department and other commercial activities there have obtained Surface Water Abstraction Licences from LUAS, “the existing situation raises concerns and questions about the future of this river”.
“This is because aquaculture activities can potentially discharge effluents with elevated levels of ammonia, phosphate/phosphorus and organics into the environment which can pollute the river if not properly controlled and monitored,” he told Bernama.
Aquaculture effluent discharge standards are not prescribed under the Environmental Quality Act 1974, which only sets standards for industrial effluents and sewage discharges, as well as wastes discharged by the palm oil and rubber industries, and waste transfer stations and landfills.
There are provisions governing effluent discharge from freshwater aquaculture operations under the LUAS Enactment but, as Zaki pointed out, they are only applicable to freshwater aquaculture farms that are 50 hectares or bigger in size.
“Maybe some parties feel that fish rearing farms that are less than 50 hectares in size don’t generate high pollution loads. Even if this is true, it doesn’t mean that it (pollution generated) is harmless to the river.
“This is because the smaller or not so large rivers segments, for example, are more sensitive to pollution even if the pollution load is not big,” he explained.
Seven scheduled activities are subject to the provisions under the Emission and Discharge of Pollutants Regulations (State of Selangor) 2012. They include freshwater aquaculture (covering an area of 50 hectares or more); marine prawn aquaculture (10 hectares or more); chicken, duck, turkey, guinea fowl, quail, pigeon, ostrich and emu farming (minimum 20,000 birds); livestock farming (minimum 250 animals); pig farming (minimum one animal); sand washing (regardless of the quantity of sand); and quarrying.
Selangor is the first state to enforce such regulations, followed by Kedah. The main objective of the regulations is to regulate the activities of sources of pollution that are not covered by the Environmental Quality Act 1974 and to complement existing laws.
WHAT IS POLLUTION?
There are two sections under the Selangor Water Management Authority (or LUAS) Enactment 1999 that prohibit pollution of water and discharge of contaminants into bodies of water, namely Section 41 (3)(d) and Section 79 (amended 2020).
“But does pollution here only refer to contamination that causes disruptions to the operations of water treatment plants?
“What about pollution that affects aquatic life (in rivers) including fish? What about pollution that affects the livelihoods and activities of the local communities? Shouldn’t there be action to prevent such pollution too?” asked Zaki.
He said to safeguard the water quality of rivers, complying with wastewater discharge limits in accordance with the existing standards is insufficient if it is not accompanied by the implementation of a total maximum daily load (TMDL) plan.
“I hope that load control measures will be implemented for all sources (of pollution), in line with the TMDL concept. Don’t forget, the ‘T’ in TMDL stands for ‘total’ which means all sources of pollution in a river basin, both point and non-point sources of pollution,” he stressed.
TMDL is the maximum amount of a pollutant load that can enter a water body without compromising its water quality.
However, existing legislation, including the Environmental Quality Act 1974, does not specifically regulate pollution loads, instead only limits of waste concentrations are prescribed.
“We control the concentration but not the pollution load. The fact is, if we want to keep a river clean and uncontaminated, we have to control the pollution load as well.
“The load takes into consideration the size of the river and (overall) amount of pollutants being discharged into it (not in terms of concentration alone). Because of this, licences for development projects along a river corridor should take into consideration the size and capacity of the river to receive the pollution load from the proposed activity so that it can assimilate the waste (generated),” said Zaki.
According to him, a river is at risk of becoming polluted when the amount of waste discharged into it exceeds its waste assimilative capacity (WAC).
He also said the Selangor state government and authorities are aware of TMDL’s significance and that the necessary steps are being taken to assess the capacity of rivers to accept pollutant loads without compromising their water quality.
To this end, LUAS has carried out two TMDL studies, one at the Sungai Langat basin and the other at Sungai Sembah. Similar studies will be carried out at more rivers in Selangor.
“The TMDL concept is nothing new. The United States has adopted it for close to 40 years. South Korea and Japan also use it. We have started to use it but not in a comprehensive manner. Neither has it been incorporated into legislation,” he added.
Expressing his hope that the implementation of the TMDL concept in the form of legislation will be expedited, Zaki said controlling the source of pollution is the most sustainable way to address pollution and that it should be done as soon as possible. It will prevent the water quality of rivers such as Sungai Batang Kali, which is categorised as a Class 2 river, from deteriorating.
According to a media report, based on data from a river water quality monitoring programme involving 471 rivers in Malaysia, five rivers were classified as polluted and were in Class 4. Meanwhile, 25 rivers were classified as severely polluted and placed in Class 5, with 16 of them located in Johor, five in the Klang Valley, three in Penang and one in Melaka.
“How do we make sure that Sungai Batang Kali will remain a Class 2 river in 20 or 30 years’ time? This is the question, given that there may arise (various) new sources of pollution in the future.
“We can treat or rehabilitate a polluted river but it involves high costs and is very time-consuming. So, we should take good care of what we have now because water is essential. Prevention is better than cure, isn’t it?” he added.
Translated by Rema Nambiar
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