Who Protects Our Rivers? Anti-Pollution Laws in Malaysia

In early September 2020, residents in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor found themselves in an unexpected water shortage. A over 1.2 million people were affected, with some experiencing the sudden loss of water for up to six days.

According to Menteri Besar Selangor Datuk Seri Amirudin Shari, a factory in Rawang was alleged to have released solvent into Sungai Gong. This caused the water to emit an odour, which led to the closure of four water treatment plants on Sungai Selangor. Unfortunately, these treatment plants directly supplied water to the Klang Valley. 

Consumers were understandably upset about the water cuts. It seems as though every few months, like clockwork, the Klang Valley experiences unexpected water disruptions. Just two months prior, in July 2020, 290 areas in the Klang Valley had their water cut off for three to four days. 

These cuts also occurred in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are required to maintain standards of hygiene through frequent hand-washing.

If we want to prevent these cases from happening again in the future, it’s clear we need to take a hard look at our current laws to see whether or not they’re effective.

Who do we hold responsible?

Four men were arrested for the Sungai Gong pollution case. The factory which they ran was then ordered to close. 

The men responsible (allegedly) dumped pollutants into the river, and caused the water disruptions to over 1.2 million people. If the four men who ran the factory were directly responsible for the pollution, it’s clear they should be brought to court.

However, is this enough?

Malaysia already has laws which are meant to protect the environment. The Environmental Quality Act, enacted in 1974, provides broad protections against environmental pollution. 

Section 25(1) of the Act stops people or companies from “emitting, discharging or depositing” any dangerous substances or pollutants into bodies of water. This is punishable with a fine of up to RM100,000; up to five years in prison; and/or an additional fine of RM1,000 per day if the pollution continues after they have been notified to stop. 

The act has been amended over the years; today, the fine is up to RM500,000, and the Selangor state government is looking to increase that further to RM1 million.

It seems as though every few months, like clockwork, the Klang Valley experiences unexpected water disruptions. Just two months prior, in July 2020, 290 areas in the Klang Valley had their water cut off for three to four days. 

Though the fines are meant to punish offenders and stop people from polluting the environment, it didn’t seem to affect this factory. The factory allegedly responsible for the water disruptions was found to have committed a similar offence in March earlier this year

What’s even more shocking is that the factory was found to be operating without a licence since 2014, and was only ordered to be demolished after the September incident. 

In an article for Free Malaysia Today, Kua Kia Soong, an advisor to Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), questioned how the factory could operate without a licence for so long. If they were investigated and fined in March, then why were they allowed to continue operations?

History repeating itself

Photo by Bernama

Just over a year ago in March 2019, a chemical spill in Johor’s Sungai Kim Kim caused over 250 people to fall ill and led to the closure of 13 schools. Four men were charged for the crime.

Yet, a few months later, the same chemical waste spilled in Sungai Kim Kim caused further health problems amongst children; the company which was contracted to clean the dangerous substances did not do a thorough enough job. Waste that was meant to be removed months ago became airborne again, causing dozens of students at nearby schools to suffer breathing difficulties.

The spill damaged more than just residents’ health. The river, which had previously been a source of livelihood for local fishermen, turned black, killing the shrimp and crabs that had previously been abundant. Children, who formerly used to swim in the river, could no longer do so. Pollution is an issue with big indirect effects; our environment is a key part of our lives, both socially and economically.

Money Motives

Economists often refer to pollution as a “negative externality”; a negative externality is, put simply, a negative effect on society or the environment due to business activities. In this case, the negative externality is the production of polluting waste which is then dumped. 

In dumping waste, the business generating the waste is transferring the cost of waste disposal from themselves to society. Hence, they create a negative externality.

When the business runs as usual, they do not factor in the cost of negative externalities. Rather, businesses only factor in the costs to create their products and run their business. Some economists have argued that in the case of pollution, governments need to create regulations that shift the social costs of the negative externalities back into the business costs of these businesses.

Corruption may also play a role in the lax enforcement of current regulations; the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has launched an investigation into the Sungai Gong case.

Cracking Down

Malaysia already has a number of schemes which encourage businesses to dispose of waste responsibly. Firms are given tax incentives (essentially tax discounts) if they reuse and recycle their waste products.

Yet, still, we experience frequent water cuts for the same reasons year after year. A factory built along a river releases waste products, leading to water disruptions as the relevant authorities attempt to fix the problem. They are fined, some are told to shut down, and then the cycle repeats itself.

The Sungai Gong culprits operated without a licence for six years. The cleaning company contracted for the Sungai Kim Kim spill failed to clean the river properly, leading to even more illness.

Clearly, our existing regulations are not working. 

Some have suggested that harsher punishments may be necessary. In May 2019, MP for Bakri Yeo Bee Yin called for a new act to replace our existing environmental protection regulations. In December 2019, Selangor MB Datuk Seri Amirudin Shari made a statement calling for harsher penalties for water polluters. In September 2020, he made another call for a raise fines for polluters to RM1mil.

However, lenient punishments may not be the only factor. Meor Razak Meor Abdul Rahman, a field researcher for Sahabat Alam Malaysia, argued that the frequency of these events shows that current rules are not being properly enforced.

The Sungai Gong culprits operated without a licence for six years. The cleaning company contracted for the Sungai Kim Kim spill failed to clean the river properly, leading to even more illness.

Clearly, our existing regulations are not working. 

Water for All

When the environment is damaged, it is often the most vulnerable who suffer. During the water cuts, those who were better off could afford to buy large bottles of water to fulfil their needs. Those who live closer to the economic edge found themselves unable to bathe their babies and children for days.

Many Orang Asli communities are also hit particularly hard by pollution. Those who live in areas with poor piping need to collect water from ponds or dig wells, with water coming directly from rivers. Often, this groundwater is contaminated, leading to illness. Though non-governmental organisations  such as Global Peace have distributed water tanks and water filters to many such communities, they fight a symptom, not the cause. 

In the cases of pollution, the bottom line is not the only thing that matters. Pollution affects all of us, affects the livelihoods of vulnerable people and shapes what we can do with our environment. It’s clear that we must find a way to crack down on businesses that flout the rules to protect the environment, and in doing so, protect ourselves. 

Feature Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky