Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

COMMENT Have you ever been made to buy something you didn’t need?

Or worse, have you been deceived, intimidated and bullied into making an entirely unnecessary, overpriced purchase?

It would appear that this is what we are facing with Syabas, this “water crisis” it keeps getting excited about.

However, if we examine the hard facts closely, we will see that the only crisis we are facing is an all too familiar crisis of corruption and cronyism - centred tightly around the RM8.65 billion Langat 2 Water Treatment Plant.

Do we really need the Langat 2 plant?

We all know politicians use taxpayer-funded megaprojects to make money. The bigger the megaproject, the bigger the kickbacks - and RM8.65 billion is plenty big.

With that much money at stake, the last thing ‘well-connected’ individuals care about is whether the project is actually needed, or whether it truly benefits the rakyat or not.

NONEThe Selangor government is all for preventing this RM8.65 billion gravy train from riding out, and its position is simple: there is plenty of water in Selangor, and if there is any shortage at all, it is due to failure, or worse, on the part of Syabas.

Here’s what Syabas doesn’t want you to know about this water “crisis”: It’s not about how much raw water there is (since the dams in Selangor are all clearly full); it’s about how Syabas is failing dramatically to efficiently convert enough of that raw water into potable water.

(Technically speaking, the main company responsible for treatment of water is Puncak Niaga, which in turn owns 70 percent of Syabas. Both companies are in essence run by the same people. For the purpose of this article, “Syabas” refers to both Puncak Niaga and Syabas.)

Not all the raw water that goes into a water treatment plant becomes potable water - that is, water deemed fit to run in our taps at home. The technical term for the amount of raw water that is wasted due to inefficiencies in the water treatment plant is called “non-revenue water” or NRW.

32pct of water produced by Syabas is wasted

Syabas’ level of NRW is 32 percent. This means that a whopping one-third of the raw water that enters a Syabas water treatment plant goes entirely to waste.

Syabas must be congratulated here, for succeeding in wasting more water than Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the NRW is only 29 percent. Eastern Manila managed to bring down its NRW from 63 percent in 1997 to 11 percent in 2010.

pulau ketam klang water shortage 051108 01More developed nations have even lower levels of NRW - Germany’s NRW is only seven percent, while the Netherlands and Denmark have achieved NRW levels of six percent.

Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that they are advanced, developed Western democracies? Oh, wait a minute, Singapore’s NRW is five percent.

It looks like under Syabas’ brilliant management, we have managed to waste six times more water than our neighbour to the south whom we like so much to make fun of. Thank you, Syabas!

There is also talk that Syabas is not given enough money to improve its services. However, the question is, would you give more money to a company that demonstrates zero ability to put that money to good use, and in fact wasted away all the money that has already been given to it?

Quite simply put, all we need to do to ensure a sufficient water supply for the Klang Valley is to drastically reduce the amount of NRW. For that, we don’t need a RM8.65 billion water treatment plant, or to throw money at the problem - we just need cleaner, better managers.

Is Syabas turning off the taps?

It’s little wonder that Syabas has never had much incentive to improve its efficiency or quality of its service - for it does not have any competition.

This simple fact has rendered many an industry in Malaysia completely defunct. Automobiles, airlines, telecommunications and power generation are all industries where cronies get rich, and Malaysians pay high prices for crap quality.

melaka pig farm demolition 050907 waste waterA monopoly like Syabas is able to take this game one step further. When you have complete monopoly over the water industry, you don’t have to wait for an actual water crisis to justify an RM8.65 billion white elephant megaproject. Even in the midst of heavy rain every single day, all you need to do is turn off the taps, and voila - “water crisis”.

I think we’ve all noticed the increased frequency of water cuts in the Klang Valley recently. A simple question remains: are the taps turned off because of a water shortage? Or because some people want you to think there’s a water shortage?

Is this all to justify a RM8.65 billion water treatment plant that no one needs - a plant that might make a few lucky people extremely rich, while impoverishing the rest of the nation?

Is Syabas threatening us?

One of the ‘best’ quotes I have read throughout this saga comes from Syabas technical services executive director V Subramaniam, perhaps a minor pawn sent forth to spew such brilliant statements as:

“The water crisis at present is the result of a shortfall in treated water for distribution caused by the refusal of the state government to issue the development order for construction of the Langat 2 treatment plant.”

Does Syabas take us for dummies?

According to this logic, if the Selangor government approves the construction of Langat 2 today (a project that will take years to complete), then the water crisis will disappear tomorrow.

Sounds a little suspicious?

Perhaps Subramaniam’s statement is technically correct, in that the state government’s refusal has indeed precipitated a ‘water shortage’ - except that he is silent on whether the said water shortage is natural - or manufactured by unscrupulous people to achieve even more unscrupulous ends.

Who is politicising the water problem? There should be a law against this sort of thing.

Oh, wait. There is this thing called the Water Services Industry Act (WSIA), which was passed by the BN-dominated Parliament in 2006.

This law provided for the de-privatisation of the water industry and its return to the respective state governments, for privatisation had clearly proven to be a disastrous failure across the board.

The water industries of BN-led (for now) Malacca and Johor were successfully deprivatised following the gazetting of the WSIA. But what happened to Selangor post-2008?

Both sides like to accuse each other of ‘politicising’ the water problem, but when the facts show that the federal government allowed deprivatisation in BN-held states while preventing it in Selangor, the truth becomes clear to all.

Let’s not forget that Syabas is run by Rozali Ismail, the ready-to-run-for-Parliament Selangor Umno treasurer who, despite creating a spectacular failure of Syabas and being accused of using millions of Syabas’ funds to buy pipes from his own company in Indonesia, is still paid a salary of RM425,000 a month as CEO.

The Selangor state government has openly stated that it plans to slash the monthly salary for this post by 90 percent.

While Syabas is dead set on exponential increases of up to 75 percent on water tariffs, Selangor has pledged to cap any tariff increases to 12 percent.

So, who is looking out for the rakyat, and who is looking out for themselves?

BN plundering before an inevitable defeat?
NONEMenteri Besar Abdul Khalid Ibrahim is the man most keen on the de-privatisation of the Selangor water industry and the takeover of Syabas by the state government.

This is the man who increased the cash reserves of the Selangor government five-fold from RM400 million in 2008 to RM2.1 billion in 2012.

Under Umno and Najib Abdul Razak, the federal debt - a debt our children and grandchildren will have to pay - has since the year 2007 nearly doubled to RM421 billion this year.

Who do you think is better suited to run our water industry?

Are we going to allow people who are bringing the nation to the edge of a real - not manufactured - economic crisis to bully us into footing the bill for a RM8.65 billion megaproject that nobody needs?

Are these high jinks the latest attempt - along with FVG, George Kent and the innumerable new spending initiatives the prime minister has recently announced - to bleed the nation’s coffers completely dry for personal gain before finishing a full term in office in 2013?

It seems the BN has serious fears of losing power, and is trying to take out as much as it can before having to face an angry electorate next year. If the BN was confident of a victory, surely the general election would have been held by now.

In any case, the unscrupulous among us are welcome to play their games.

Turning off the taps and replacing the flow of water with the flow of painfully illogical arguments is less likely to pressure the state government to forsake the interests of the rakyat, and more likely to point the finger back at those truly responsible for scaremongering and criminal mismanagement.

NATHANIEL TAN works as a consultant to the Selangor state government.