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Water war’s central theme is ‘money’

 | July 25, 2012

Klang MP and Coalition Against Water Privatisation coordinator Charles Santiago speaks to FMT about the water spat between the federal and Selangor state governments.

PETALING JAYA: Central to the “water war” in Selangor is an abundance of money, Umno cronies and the lack of proper information.

This was the summary according to DAP’s Charles Santiago, who, aside from being the Klang MP, also has an activist background and has been at the forefront of the water issue in the state for some time.

The Coalition Against Water Privatisation (CAWP) coordinator spoke to FMT about why he insisted that a “water crisis” was one that was “manufactured”; what he predicted would happen after this; and how he thinks it can be resolved.

The people of Selangor, he admitted, would suffer from this prolonged standstill between the state and the federal governments, which Santiago described as a “water war”.

He said the best way to resolve this would be to hold an independent audit on Syabas by a company from another country without any vested interests.

The so-called “water war” started when Syabas announced last week that it was planning to implement water rationing in the Klang Valley following a shortfall of treated water.

This prompted an immediate response from the Selangor government, with Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim saying the state government intended to take over the management of Syabas in two weeks.

Pakatan Rakyat leaders and certain NGOs accused Syabas of indulging in politics by “manufacturing” the crisis in order to hasten construction of the RM3.6 billion Langat 2 treatment plant.

The Pakatan-run state government had denied that Selangor was running short of water, saying that all seven dams in Selangor had overflowing water levels. Several Pakatan leaders even visited the dams and treatment plants to “show” that there was no crisis.

The federal government also responded by announcing the setting up of a Cabinet committee, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, to handle the conflict between the Selangor government and Syabas.

On Monday, the committee said that the government had decided to disallow the Selangor government from taking over the operations of Syabas.

Muhyiddin said that the federal government would go ahead with building the Langat 2 water treatment plant without Selangor state’s approval.

He also said that there was no need to ration water supply to Selangor and the surrounding areas in the Federal Territories.

The issue, according to Muhyiddin, had come to a “critical level” as there were several areas in the Klang Valley where “water is not forthcoming”.

Below are excerpts from the interview

FMT: What’s your take on the ‘water crisis’ issue? There seems to be a lack of solid information to debunk either side. Is there a way to clarify the confusion?

Santiago: The first point to note here is that there is a monopoly of information, which is all controlled by the federal government, Water Association of Selangor, Kuala Lumpurand Putrajaya (SWAn) [headed by Sybas’ Rozali Ismail]. All of them are using Syabas’ figures. So in terms of information, we are at the mercy of Syabas. The information that they are not giving us are things like:

  • outflow of raw water from dams and pumping stations into treatment plants from Jan 1 to July 15 this year;
  • metre readings of the outflow of treated water into treatment plants for the same period;
  • metre readings of the outflow of treated water into consumer distribution system (via Syabas);
  • certified logbooks and calibrated metres;
  • electricity bills for the same period;
  • chemical usage for the same period; and
  • Puncak Niaga/ Syabas payment bills for water sold for the same period.

Why are you seeking this information, especially between these specific dates of Jan 1 and July 15?

Because Syabas is telling us there is a trend of three months (of increased water demand), we want to see if that is true at all. If this information is released, we can have our experts examine it. As far as we are concerned at the moment, the whole “water crisis” is manufactured.

When you say it is “manufactured”, are you referring to this so-called conspiracy manufactured by BN-Umno as claimed by Pakatan?

I am not a conspiracy theorist but I am saying that this entire thing is all about money. The whole water transfer project from Pahang to Selangor is going to cost some RM9 billion, so there is a lot of money involved. From what I understand from my industry sources, Umno boys are getting a lot of the contracts. I am talking about contracts for things like laying the pipes to others. Industry sources also tell me that Puncak Niaga is also getting the contract to operate and manage this.

But didn’t the federal government say that there would be a tender process for this?

That’s the nice things that they are saying. But we want to ask them straight up, have you promised this project to Puncak Niaga? Yes or no?

So, you’re telling us that everything is “manufactured” for certain parties to get money?

Yes. Because the National Water Resources Study 2000-2050 (carried out by SMHB Sdn Bhd in cooperation with Ranhill Bersekutu Sdn Bhd and Jurutera Perunding Zaaba) showed that investments for water infrastructure development costs around RM50 billion and now we are talking about between RM80 billion and RM100 billion. Like I said, there is a lot of money to be made in this industry. And anyone with the connections will scramble to get a piece of it. One of them is Puncak Niaga.

What, in your opinion, would be the best way to resolve this? You have mentioned that an independent audit is the only way. How do you think we should go about this?

The state and federal governments must come up with a third-party independent audit. It would be better to have a state-run (foreign) audit company; in this way, they would not have any interests, either with the Selangor state or the federal government. The way I look at it, everyone in Malaysia has taken sides in this issue. On one side we have Syabas, the federal government, and the mainstream media and on the other side, you have us, the state. The truth is not coming out. What we are hearing is “their truth”. They have vested interest to overthrow the state.

You accuse the mainstream media of taking sides and having “vested interest to overthrow the state”, how do you justify that?

The Star belongs to MCA, Syabas belongs to (Selangor) Umno treasurer (Rozali Ismail), the NST is also an Umno-linked company. Look at the time when the issue of garbage collection broke out, it was played up in the mainstream media. But the fact was Selangor saved about RM800 million. The quit rent dropped by 25% and as you can see, the benefits are distributed to help the people. Yes, there were teething problems when it was first introduced but it is now better. Look at 2011-2012, Selangor has saved about RM2 billion, it is unprecedented.

I think the reason Muhyiddin says there is no more need for rationing is that his Special Branch studies show that people are just pissed off over this issue. His response is now obviously a political one instead of something based on facts.

Why is the Selangor government so adamant that Langat 2 should not proceed?

Firstly, we must ask: who is going to pay for the cost, the expenditure of RM9 billion for the project? Somebody has to bear the costs. The people of Selangor, Putrajaya, Klang Valley will be the ones who will be forced to pay for it through increased tariffs. Secondly, they cannot justify why they need to build it. What is the basis for it? The National Water Resources Study 2000-2050 painted the picture that Selangor will have a water drought somewhere in 2012, 2013, or 2014. But the problem is that the study had used a higher economic growth of 8% when the realistic figure is about 4% to 5%. The population growth they used was also higher than the actual figures. So having these “over” projections compared to what is really happening right now, does not justify having this water transfer project like Langat 2.

Furthermore, why are they focusing only on the big projects when we should be talking about upgrading of existing plants, reduction of consumption, and conservation? We should be asking people to stop wasting so much: don’t clean our cars with processed water, cut down usage, rain water harvesting at houses, and decrease non-revenue water such as broken pipes. All these should be put in place but instead, nothing. Syabas has part of the responsibility in doing all these.

You mentioned that you require information from Syabas, and a failure to provide this information will result in your NGO, Coalition Against Water Privatisation (CAWP), taking other more drastic action, including legal action. What next, will you go to the streets to protest?

There won’t be a protest yet, but this week, we will be handing over a memorandum to them to demand the information we asked for. Syabas has publicly promised that they would be happy to supply this information. We are also looking at legal action, depending on what happens. Let’s see how it goes.

Looking at the way things are going, are you predicting that the matter would end up in court?

All the tendencies show that it would. But I hope it won’t come to that. Look at the case we brought in 2007 asking the court to declare the audit report and the 2004 concession agreement signed between Syabas, the Selangor government and the federal government. But until today, it is still in the appeal court. It has been five years. There is a need to free information. Yes, I don’t want to say people are manipulating the information. But we have doubts about the information we have been given and we are not getting answers from Syabas.

There has been a suggestion to hold a referendum to let the people of Selangor decide if they would accept (or reject) the Selangor government taking over Syabas. What’s your view of this?

I still think that an independent third-party audit is the best solution. It has to happen. I don’t think having a referendum would be an easy process.

What do you predict would happen after this? Would this, if you may call it “political game”, drag on and result in the suffering of the Selangor folk?

Looking at the way the federal government is going ahead with the Langat 2, without proper justification, I see that, yes, you can say that the ordinary folk will be the victims here. But interestingly, the Selangor government is caught up with this “water war”. Because if BN is not adamant about Langat 2, which is basically helping Umno cronies, Selangor wouldn’t be inciting these issues unncesssarily.

The water issue between the Selangor and federal governments is not new, and in fact has been brewing for some time. You have been one of the people at the forefront campaigning for free water and a better management of water. Could you share with us what other information people may have overlooked in this entire issue this time around?

Here, we have a corporation holding a state government and public to ransom. I can see similarities with this and the scandal of the the now defunct US energy giant Enron. Both had manufactured a crisis just to secure contracts. (In 2000, Enron had reportedly pushed for higher tariffs and infrastructure following announcements that there was a critical energy crisis within California.)

A similar thing is happening here, you have a privatised company supposedly entrusted to provide affordable water and when we ask for information, they can’t even give us. This goes to show how much has gone wrong (in our country).


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