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Clean water in hot water

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Clean water in hot water

30 December 2017 / The Star

WITH 2018 around the corner, you would think that clean water is not an issue for us in Malaysia. But would you believe it if we told you that untreated faeces from animal farms and contaminated syringes could potentially be entering our water supply?

At this year-end, we feel compelled to share one of the horror stories that we learnt about during our usual round of company visits in the region.

This tale covers two nations but is a story that plagues so many parts of the world. It is a story that revolves around one of the most precious resources on our planet – water.

We conducted a review of the natural water supply to look into what exactly is going into our rivers and dams, as well as the level of water flowing into the water treatment plants.

At one of the rivers, we saw many drug addicts living under the bridge, where they drank, washed and defecated into the river. What an unpleasant thought, that not only faeces are entering the river, but also their contaminated syringes.

As part of our research, we also looked at various industries that impact water supply to the river. There were areas that had been affected by the release of untreated wastewater from an effluent treatment plant of a private palm oil mill, which resulted in the water treatment plant downstream being shut for two days.

Upon testing the intake of water to the treatment plant, we also learnt that the non-compliance levels of ammonia are shockingly high. These ammonia traces, which originated from the nearby animal farm and sanitary landfill, could not reach the levels suitable for treatment despite being diluted.

For water to be treated, the ammonia levels at the intake must be approximately 1.5mg/litre. You might ask how bad can the ammonia levels reach?

Just to give you a small taste of the challenges faced in the water supply industry, some of these companies are pushing out pollutants up to a level of more than 400mg/litre into our rivers at their discharge point.

Although the rivers do dilute the pollutants, ammonia is only sometimes diluted to approximately 10mg/litre, which is still 10 times higher than what is acceptable by the Health Ministry as the permissible raw water quality.

One must remember that the water treatment plants are not designed to treat ammonia. They can only operate if the ammonia content of the incoming raw water is not more than 1.5 mg/litre levels, as the discharge standards only allow ammonia in treated water to not exceed 1.5 mg/litre.

We were pleasantly surprised to note that water supply operators are putting in efforts to retrofit the affected plants with ammonia removal facilities wherever critically needed.

However, if there are no enforcement measures taken to control ammonia levels in the water supply, eventually all water treatment plants in the country will have to be retrofitted with ammonia removal facilities, which will translate to higher tariffs for consumers. This is an unfair obligation for the rakyat to bear on behalf of the irresponsible parties and companies.

There is another foul twist to this tale. We visited a farm with over one million chickens that was located only a few km upstream from the intake point of a water treatment plant.

Due to the close proximity of the farm to the plant, the ammonia levels in the water were at times high enough to shut down the operations of the treatment plant for days.

Shockingly, we discovered that the farm operators transfer the faeces of the one million chickens into a storage area for composting while the waste water is transferred into an aerated lagoon. When the lagoons are not desludged over time, the lagoons will face “sludge bulking”. And any “excess incoming of sludge will not be able to settle, will just flow out”.

At night, some of these companies are actually discharging non-treated waste water into the surrounding streams, which supplies water to the treatment plants.

You may ask, is this really an issue we need to look at? The answer is a resounding “yes”, because these farms and irresponsible factories should be held criminally liable for endangering public health.

Due to their actions, the raw water becomes unsafe as it contains bacteria that can be harmful to humans. As the water plants cannot treat the raw water with high levels of ammonia, the only option is to wait until the quality of raw water reaches permissible levels for the plant to resume operations.

The good news is that almost 100 samples of water from various spots along the treatment chain (river/dams, treatment plants, service reservoirs) have been sent to an accredited, centralised lab for testing to ensure that quality water is distributed to consumers.

Low water tariffs have created a subsidy mentality among Malaysians, who take clean, potable water for granted.

If we do not protect the sanctity of our water supply, we will continue to face water shortages and increasing health issues. As a society, we need to take on this responsibility to protect our water supply.

 




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