Letter to Chief Minister

12 March 2008


YAB Lim Guan Eng

Ketua Menteri Pulau Pinang

Pejabat Ketua Menteri

Tingkat 28, KOMTAR

10503 Pulau Pinang



Re: Water & Environment in Penang 

First of all, all of us at water watch Penang would like to extend our warmest congratulations to you for being elected Chief Minister of our beloved state of Penang. First, allow me to introduce myself. I am Professor Dr Chan Ngai Weng, President of Water Watch Penang, an NGO established in 1997 and registered with the Registrar of Societies. Professionally, I teach Geography and Environmental Management (Water Resources & Hazards) at Universiti Sains Malaysia.


I read the Star paper today (12 March 2008) and it was reported after YAB was sworn in as Chief Minister at your new office in KOMTAR that YAB stressed the key areas of the new agenda for Penang included the economy, governance and social needs of the people. I have no argument with that. It’s all well and good. However, I would like to point out to YAB that all these would mean nothing without a “livable” environment with adequate clean water!


As you may be aware, Penang is a very developed and urbanized state that has regrettably destroyed much of its environment over the decades. YAB’s new state government will need to pay urgent attention to conserve, protect and rehabilitate (if needed) Penang’s environment (seas, land, forests, rivers, air, etc). If we don’t look after our environment, we will need to spend billions of Ringgit to restore and rehabilitate it in future (see Photo 1). These finds are better spent on education, welfare and other needs. Furthermore, Penang is small state with less than 7% of its land area under water catchment. What is more alarming is that 80% of our water is sourced from the Sg Muda, which has its origins in Kedah (Hence, of late, Kedah’s ex-MB have been demanding that Penang pays Kedah for the water we take as well as threatening to log the Sg Muda catchment [fortunately the Cabinet rejected Kedah’s plans]). To summarise, Penang needs to pay urgent attention to water needs in charting our future. Singapore has done so remarkably and is a good example to follow in terms of water management [with the exception of its NEWater which is recycled water from toilets!]. Without water Penang’s economy would die! Society would suffer and all the good things about transparent governance, progressive economy and just society would count for nothing!


We, from Water Watch Penang, the only water NGO in the whole country [we only deal with water and issues related to it] would like to submit the following

 Memorandum to New Penang State Government on Water Management Strategies & Policies for Penang State Water is under state control. In terms of water policies, the main policy of Penang State is the development of a Water Supply Master Plan. Currently, since the bulk of Penang’s water (80%) is drawn from the Sg Muda, which has its upper catchments in Kedah, Penang is expected to become increasingly dependent on Kedah for water. Furthermore, Kedah is already demanding that Penang pay for the water it is drawing from the Sg Muda (Penang has so far refused based on the principle that we draw water from the Sg Muda only within our boundaries, i.e. along a stretch when the Sg Muda has flowed into Penang). However, Kedah has built (and may further build) several dams along the Sg Muda and when all these dams become operational, the total flow in the downstream stretches of Sg Muda is expected to be significantly reduced to the extent that Penang will be unable to draw sufficient water. Furthermore, when the river is in “low-flow” status, the water would be too concentrated with pollutants to be of use for water supply. To compound the problem, agriculture expansion and rapid industrialization in Kedah (e.g. the Kulim High Tech Park) will adversely affect both water quantity and quality in downstream Sg Muda. The Key Issues and Problems in Water Resources Management in Penang are as follows: 

(i) The State Government and the PBAPP Sdn Bhd own very little catchment land – Much of Penang’s catchment land are privately owned. As a result, PBAPP cannot control development on its water catchment. Indiscriminate development of water catcthment, especially by private owners can lead to water pollution and destruction of water catchment. Only 10.1 % of designated catchment land in Penang has been gazetted. Other land within the water catchments are either under PBA (19.6 %), state land (3.7 %), Forest Reserve land (52.5 %) and privately owned land (14.1 %). This situation has not helped in efforts to protect water catchments from physical development, pollution and destruction. The most acute problems are caused by private owners developing their land. 

(ii) Penang is dependent on other states for water and has no control over development activities in other states – The bulk (About 80 %) of Penang's treated water are obtained from the Muda and Kulim river catchments both of which are located in Kedah. As such, Penang cannot control activities outside its borders, even when such activities can adversely affect water resources. This is not a very comforting and secure situation. Penang needs to ensure the future security of water resources. Currently, it is depending too much on other states and it has no control over activities in neighbouring states. Currently, the State’s water resources are being threatened by indiscriminate development of catchment areas (within and outside Penang State); reduced rainfall amounts in recent years, water pollution, increasing demand, conflicting land uses, and fragmented management. 

(iii) There is no law for the protection of river basins - In relation to the protection of river basins, there is presently no law for this either at the State or Federal level. This is a major problem that needs to be addressed given the fact that PBA owns very little of the land on which its river basins (and water catchments) are located. Currently, it appears that not much emphasis is placed on river basin management and development as a whole. This is alarming as most developed nations have long embarked upon comprehensive river basin management towards the sustainable and effective use of water. In Malaysia, river basins often fall into two or more states. Each state often manages its own territory. As a result, one state can pollute the water resources of another. Currently, Penang draws water from the lower reaches of the Muda River which flows through Kedah before entering Penang. Kedah has earmarked ambitious high technology and industrial parks in the Kulim and adjacent areas where the Muda River flows through. It is anticipated that the water quality at the lower reaches will deteriorate in time to come. It is always problematic if there is no holistic river basin management.   

(iv) There is no integrated Catchment Management Plan - Currently, the management of  Penang's water catchments is rather ineffective as the responsibility is being shared by nine different government agencies who do not share similar objectives and priorities. Although the PBA is the authority with regards to water catchments in the State, it does not always have the final say when it comes to issues related to the development of catchment land. For example, the PBA’s role was reduced to being that of the common citizen when it objected to the proposed Penang Hill Draft Local Plan in 1997. This was because a significant section of the proposed development on the hill involved one of PBA’s water catchment areas, viz. the Tat’s Stream Catchment.    

(v) Pollution of Muda and Kulim rivers by development activities upstream in Kedah, as well as in Penang - Kedah has made known its intentions of rapid industrial and economic developments as manifested by the Kulim High Tech Park, industrial estates, and infrastructural developments, including the proposed Northern Region International Airport. Such developments will inevitably affect the quality of the waters in the Sg Muda and Sg Kulim at downstream stretches in Penang. Currently, pollution of these two river courses are mostly by dumping of untreated effluents from rubber and oil palm factories, and leeching of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides from padi farming in the Muda Irrigation region. The Sg Pinang and Sg Juru are classified as Class V, i.e. totally “useless”.   

(vi) Hill development is endangering water catchments and polluting (sedimentation and siltation) of downstream stretches of rivers - In Penang Island, hill development activities in the Paya Terubong hills (through housing and infrastructure developments), the Penang Hill area (through illegal farming and squatting), Bukit Gambier (Through housing developments) and the Teluk Bahang hills (through the construction of the Teluk Bahang Dam), have  resulted in the degradation of water catchments and the pollution of water quality. In Seberang Prai, industrial, infrastructural, housing and agricultural development (mostly padi farming) in the upper Muda catchment have affected water quality, especially at the Penang water intake point situated on the lower reaches of the river.  

(vii) A high level of water loss due to leakages and breakages - Penang’s average Non-Revenue Water (NRW), i.e. water loss from the mains due to breakage, leakage, thefts, faulty meters, etc, is considered low in Malaysia, averaging about 20 % since 1981. In 1995, total loss was 21.9 % of total water production. Given the figure that Penang’s 1996 total water production was about 236 million cubic metres of water, it follows that the loss that year was about 51.7 million cubic metres. This is a lot of wasted water and is certainly unacceptable. In 2000,the NRW had gone up to 23.04 %. 

(viii) Poor institutional cooperation - Also, in terms of the institutional framework of the water sector in Penang, there are just too many agencies with overlapping (some with conflicting) responsibilities. Many other sectors also affect water resources as there are many different kinds of developments which have an effect on the quantity and quality of its water resources. For example, hill development, hill farming, land reclamation, industrial development, infrastructure development, mining and quarrying affect water. All these activities are in general independent of one another. Each activity is under the jurisdiction of the responsible agency, for e.g. hill land development being under the Land Office, the MPPP or the MPSP and river bank development under the JPS. All these agencies work independently. There is currently no single organisation that coordinates all the activities which have an effect on water resources. For example, whereas the management of water resources for domestic and industrial/commercial uses is vested in the PBA PP Sdn Bhd (water supply has been privatized in Penang), agricultural water usage is vested with the JPS, and the monitoring and control of water pollution is under the DOE. All these bodies/agencies work independently of one another, despite claims that there is some coordination. Hence, water resources management in Penang is fragmented as the responsibility is being shared by not less than nine different government agencies who do not share similar objectives and priorities, resulting in the institutional framework for water resources management in Penang being very loose and unsatisfactory. 

(ix) Lack of civil society involvement in river management – Despite its large number of NGOs and active civil society in Penang, there is very little involvement amongst them in river management. Hence, millions of Ringgit spent in improving rivers in the state has shown little success, since for every 1 ton of garbage excavated by the JPS or its contractors, uncivilised people and factories/businesses dump in 2 tons or more! For river management to work, civil society and the public must be involved actively. More funds need to be spent on awareness and education rather than merely excavation works on rivers. Civil society involvement can also monitor water pollution, catchment destruction, tariffs, etc. 

In the light of the above, Penang needs to implement the following: 

·                     Protection of all existing water resources.;

·                     Maximising the State’s water resources (find new sources);

·                     Encouraging water recycling as part of a water conservation programme (to reduce abuse and wastage);

·                     Increase further the efficiency of the delivery system and ensure water supply to all households;

·                     Further improve cooperation with other States in the Northern Region, particularly Kedah and Perak (we may need to buy raw water from Perak or Kedah in future, just like Singapore purchasing raw water from Johor)

·                     Monitor water pollution and catchment destruction/disturbance and enforce legislation related to it

·                     Involve civil society in practical aspects of water management (e.g. awareness, education, fixing of tariffs, consideration of new water projects, etc). Set up a Consultative Council of Civil Society.  Generally, it is the ultimate objective of the State to achieve a 100 % domestic piped water supply to the entire State population. As such, this appears to be the main policy on water resources albeit it deals only with water supply. Although there appears to be some concern on the part of the State in terms of water resources availability and efforts to increase water supply (for example in building the Teluk Bahang dam and treatment plants), there is no clear-cut policy on water resources management from the State. Much of the above policies are centred on water supply, and this is largely left to the jurisdiction of the PBAPP Sdn Bhd, being the agency responsible for the provision of domestic and industrial water supplies (agricultural water supply is the responsibility of the JPS).    

Some proposed strategies for water resource management in Penang are as follows: 

  • The development of a sustainable long term Water Supply Master Plan
  • Continued State control of water privatisation
  • Enhancing the capacities of existing dams, e.g. the Teluk Bahang Dam
  • The building greater capacity treatment plants
  • Reducing NRW
  • Increasing the volume of intakes, e.g. new intake plant on the Sg Perai
  • Increasing the percentage of population served with piped water
  • Increasing the length and number of mains laid & changing of old pipes
  • Reducing the number of standpipes as mains are increased
  • Maintaining existing pipes
  • Protection of water catchments
  • Intensify monitoring river quality and control of river pollution
  • Active involvement of civil society 

For example, the Sg Melaka, a small river about similar size to Penang’s Sg Pinang, costs RM320 million in restoration works (Source: NST 13 Jan 2008).


We are confident that the new Penang Government will take some, if not all these suggestions into consideration. YAB, Thank you for your attention.


Yours faithfully,


Prof Dr Chan Ngai Weng