Exclusive | Six-day water disruption in Penang explained (Part Two)


AFTER six days of hard work, the water supply for all of Penang’s 660,000 consumers has been normalised on July 11.


However, Penangites are now concerned with the possible recurrence of this major water disruption in Penang.


In an exclusive interview, Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBAPP) chief executive officer Datuk Jaseni Maidinsa said such an incident must not happen again.


“You must nip it in the bud. It should have been stopped from the very beginning. What is happening now is that we are still ‘reacting’ after an incident occurred, instead of preventing it from happening.”



What are the contingency plans to prevent another Sungai Muda raw water issue?

Jaseni: The Federal Government must play its role and establish the Ulu Muda Basin Authority (Umba) or its equivalent, to conserve, manage, and protect the entire Sungai Muda basin and its catchment area (Ulu Muda) as a Northern Corridor Economic Region asset for Perlis, Kedah, and Penang.


The Penang Chief Minister has written to the minister in charge on this matter but until now, there is no positive reaction. The proposal to set up Umba is by the PBAPPP and the Penang government.


Water consumers must know that we are also facing the ‘triple threats’ – the logging in Ulu Muda, the new Kulim airport and aerotropolis on the land adjacent to Sungai Muda, and the rare earth elements mining in Ulu Muda – which will affect the raw water quality of Sungai Muda.


The Federal Government is the only authority that can set up Umba to stop the abovementioned ‘triple threats’.



What would happen if nothing were done to prevent the ‘triple threats’?

Jaseni: The risk of another Sungai Muda raw water issue is increased fourfold. I would say the risk of a possible recurrence is very high. We have repeatedly stated that any mishap involving Sungai Muda or Ulu Muda will affect the water supply in Kedah and Penang. That is why we are pushing for Umba to be set up.


Taking care of the Ulu Muda and Sungai Muda will also benefit Kedah. During the recent Sungai Muda raw water issue, Kedah had to shut down five of its water treatment plants because they also draw raw water from Sungai Muda. But you do not hear much news about Kedah. Penang is always the ‘blue-eyed boy’. The people love to talk about Penang because we are the benchmark.



Why is it important for the Federal Government to establish Umba?

Jaseni: It is important to set up Umba to conserve, manage, and protect the entire Sungai Muda basin. It means not only protecting Sungai Muda but also every tributary that contributes water to the river.


The Baling flash flood at Kampung Iboi in Kupang, Kedah, is said to flow through Sungai Kupang into Sungai Ketil. And Sungai Ketil is one of the tributaries of Sungai Muda. When we say Ulu Muda Basin, we must not only protect Sungai Muda. We must also protect its tributaries. If anything should happen to the tributaries, they will also enter the Sungai Muda.


Secondly, the Federal Government must gazette the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve as a water catchment area so that it can be protected. We must ensure that there are no activities there except storing water.



How can we reduce our dependence on Sungai Muda?

Jaseni: We have identified and completed a study on the Sungai Perak Raw Water Transfer Scheme (SPRWTS) project in 2009 to reduce our dependence on Sungai Muda. Sungai Perak is the future water source for Penang.


We tabled the study to the regulator National Water Services Commission (SPAN) and it has approved it. We tabled the study to the ministry, and it has also approved it in 2012.


But we could not get an agreement from Perak. Hence, the project has been delayed for almost 11 years now. The SPRWTS is a huge project and involves various civil engineering works. The first phase of the project takes about seven years to be completed.


The first phase of the project was first scheduled to start in 2013 and be completed in 2020. Imagine if we had commissioned the project in 2020, we would have an additional source of raw water when the Sungai Muda raw water issue occurs.


In all, the SPRWTS was delayed three times. The second delay was in 2018 when the Pakatan Harapan took over the (Federal) government. The project still did not materialise. We had targeted for the project to start in 2018 and be completed in 2025 back then.


And now, we are still waiting for the final engineering study on this SPRWTS project. This study is financed by the Ministry of Environment and Water. The study will allow us to see how much water Penang can or cannot get from this SPRWTS.


It was supposed to be completed in April this year, and now we are still awaiting the completion of this study. All these delays have their consequences.


We hope to start the project next year (2023) so it can be completed by 2030.



How can SPRWTS help Penang?

Jaseni: The water from Sungai Perak comes from the south, which is geographically good. This is because we can ‘split’ the water supply areas into two. The Sungai Dua WTP does not need to transfer water all the way to south Seberang Perai (SPS). It can send water to north and central Seberang Perai while Sungai Perak can supply water to SPS.


Moreover, the water from Sungai Muda is enough for Penang until 2025. Sungai Muda cannot provide additional water beyond 2025. This is if we protect the water catchment area and the Ulu Muda basin to ensure that the water supply does not reduce.


We must get water from somewhere else, either from Sungai Perak or via desalination of seawater, beyond 2025.


If the SPRWTS goes through, we do not have to do water desalination so much. If SPRWTS comes slightly later, then we have to do some desalination, perhaps a ‘hybrid’. And if SPRWTS does not materialise, then we have to do desalination all the way.



How will desalination affect Penang and its consumers?

Jaseni: We try not to do water desalination because surface water treatment of Sungai Perak will cost much lower. When the treatment cost is much lower, the burden to raise the water tariff is also lesser, and therefore the burden on Penangites is lesser.


Desalination is our ‘worst-case scenario’ plan, in case of the SPRWTS project does not materialise.


Desalination uses electricity and more chemicals. If your raw water quality is as good as the water in Mengkuang Dam, then the cost of the treatment process is cheaper because you use fewer chemicals. When the water turbidity is high, you must use more chemicals to treat it and chemicals are expensive.


Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of desalination was already 3.5 times more than the cost of surface water treatment.


Just look at the differential price of cooking oil now as compared to before the pandemic, and you can imagine the increase in the cost of desalination.


Penang’s average domestic water tariff is only 32 sen per 1,000 litres (for the first 35,000 per month) and is the lowest in the country, while the water price in Singapore is way higher!




Can desalination replace our dependence on Sungai Muda?

Jaseni: Desalination cannot replace our dependence on Sungai Muda. Our water demand is higher beyond 2025, and we need to cater for that demand. The existing demand is still being met by the water from Sungai Muda. Unless you build a desalination plant that is two times what we need (to meet the existing and future demand) and be totally independent of Sungai Muda.


It will be very expensive. Economically, it does not make sense. Even Singapore which does desalination is also buying water from Johor because it is cheaper.



What are our options?

Jaseni: There are two important matters – to set up the Umba to protect our existing raw water supply and to start the SPRWTS project.


The Penang government needs to pursue and push the Federal Government to expedite the two very important matters.


The authorities in charge are the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Prime Minister, who is the chairman of the Majlis Air Negara.


The Penang MPs and their colleagues must bring these matters up to the Parliament vigorously.


We saw the need for the SPRWTS project sometime in 2007 and it has been 15 years now. We are sad that Sungai Muda raw water issue happened and there is still nothing being done.



In the meantime, what is PBAPP’s plan to ensure that Penang has a healthy ‘reserve margin’ and avoid a water crisis until 2030?

Jaseni: We are implementing the Raw Water Contingency Plan 2030 (RWCP 2030) projects and we must make sure that the water supply engineering projects are completed according to schedule. The RWCP 2030 is a subset of the Penang Water Supply Initiative 2050 (PWSI 2050). The PWSI 2050 is a water supply engineering roadmap to ensure water supply security for Penang until 2050.


There are five water supply engineering projects under the RWCP 2030. They are Phase 2, Sungai Dua Water Treatment Plant (WTP) Sedimentation Tanks Upgrades; Package 12A, Sungai Dua WTP: an Additional New Water Treatment Module; Phase 1 Mengkuang Dam WTP; Phase 1 Sungai Muda WTP; and Sungai Perai Water Supply Scheme.




Story by Christopher Tan

Pix by Adleena Rahayu Ahmad Radzi