Nearly four months on, the government is still dealing with the ramifications of the Sungai Kim Kim pollution-related incident, which left thousands of schoolchildren and residents requiring medical treatment.
The crisis has been blamed on industrial pollution of Sungai Kim Kim. However, publicly available data suggests that Sungai Kim Kim is not the worst polluted river in Pasir Gudang.
Malaysiakini takes a look at what ails the rivers in the town.
It started with the dumping of chemical waste in Sungai Kim Kim, a relatively nondescript river running almost the width of the industrial Johor town of Pasir Gudang.
One resident recounted to Malaysiakini how his sister was one of those badly affected by the Sungai Kim Kim incident, after coming to the aid of a woman who had collapsed at a petrol station.
“My sister brought the woman to the hospital, but then she too fainted and had to be hospitalised. She was also vomiting and had chest pains.
The latest Environmental Quality Report (EQR) was released by the Environment Department (DOE) for 2017.
In it, rivers are classified from Class I to V – with I being the most pristine, drinkable water, to V being the worst, unsafe for any use. Class I to III rivers, meanwhile, can also host aquatic life while there is no life in Class IV and V rivers.
Sungai Kim Kim is a Class III (slightly polluted) river.
Out of 477 rivers nationwide monitored by the DOE that year, 51 were considered polluted. Twenty-seven of these, over 52.9 percent, were in Johor alone – with 12 Class III rivers, 14 Class IV and one Class V river.
Although the 2018 EQR has not been released at the time of writing, Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin was reported saying in March that there are now 25 Class V rivers – otherwise known as ‘dead’ rivers – in the country, from just one in 2017.
Sixteen of these are in Johor.
|State||2019 ‘Dead’ river count|
Sungai Tukang Batu – the most polluted river in Malaysia according to the 2017 EQR – was inaccessible, as it runs down the middle of an industrial zone which has been covered up.
Malaysiakini visited three other rivers: Sungai Buluh, considered the second most polluted river in the country based on its water quality index (WQI) number; Sungai Masai, which runs through heavily populated areas and industrial zones; as well as Sungai Kim Kim, the site of the chemical waste incident in March.
Upon first inspection, Sungai Buluh was not a welcoming sight. Surrounded by factories on both sides, its water was turbid - a murky greenish brown - and moved sluggishly due to heavy debris and sediment. A bad smell also emanated from the river, mixing with the smell of smoke from nearby factories.
Malaysiakini also witnessed wastewater being discharged from pipes running from the factories straight into the river. Whether this dumping falls within permissible standards set by authorities could not be ascertained, however.
The water was also greenish-brown at the mouth of Sungai Masai, where it pours into the Johor Straits. Several mangrove trees at the riverside had also been uprooted. Such trees serve to protect the banks from erosion, and help maintain water quality by filtering pollutants and trapping sediments from land.
At locations along Sungai Kim Kim only separated from people’s homes by several feet of small road and patches of grass, the foul smell from the highly murky river could easily be detected. Malaysiakini later also visited another part of the river which runs through an industrial area.
Even those disposing their wastewater within the legal limits can find themselves adding to the problem, thanks to a loophole in the law.
Elaborating, Zaki said the most stringent standard for the concentration of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in industrial discharge limits is at 20mg/L (Standard A). Industrial factories must treat wastewater to this limit of BOD before it is disposed of.
Standard A is used for water supply intakes downstream, whereas Standard B applies to any other inland waters or Malaysian waters.
The problem with this, he said, is that even the 20mg/L limit under Standard A is far above what the National Water Quality Standards considers a Class V river.
|Biochemical Oxygen Demand||mg/L|
|Class V||> 12|
Under these standards – the guidelines used by the DOE to measure the water quality in rivers – anything above 12mg/L of BOD detected in rivers would place a river in Class V, essentially making it dead.
There are similar instances of this for other parameters, such as the concentration of ammoniacal nitrogen (AN), where the most stringent standard limits it to 10mg/L for industrial discharge. Under the National Water Quality Standards, anything above 2.7mg/L is considered Class V.
|Class V||> 2.7|
* Standard A applies to the situation that there are water catchment downstream, while standard B applies to any other inland waters or Malaysian waters.
“Our most stringent regulation in terms of industrial effluent discharges, when you compare to the water quality standard, it is actually Class V. Why is that the case?
“It is because the regulations were drafted in such a way where they hope that the river will dilute some of the bad waste. The question is whether the rivers can dilute these or not?” Zaki said.
“When you have so many industrial premises packed into a small region, it’s just oversaturated. Some rivers could also be just a small river.”
Other countries, Zaki noted, have more comprehensive regulations that not only look at the concentration of chemicals and other substances in the water, but also the volume of discharged water and the size of the receiving river.
“Not only in the United States, but also Japan and Korea… but in Malaysia, we just look at the concentration of effluents,” he explained.
Pasir Gudang was a collection of fishing villages before the Teochew people, who came from southern China, began planting crops like gambier and rubber along the riverbanks.
That changed after the Malayan Emergency ended in the 1960s. In 1977, the state government gave statutory body Johor Corporation the mandate to administer the town until 2009.
Many environmental laws did not exist at the time. The Pasir Gudang Municipal Council (MPPG) only took over local administration ten years ago.
Johor Corporation developed Pasir Gudang into an industrial area, paving the way for the establishment of the Johor Port, which became an alternative to the Port of Singapore.
Gan Kai Hui, who is involved in city planning in southern Johor, pointed out that this pattern of packing in so many industries into one area was meant to attract foreign investors.
However, Gan pointed out that there was a lack of foresight in the initial development of the industrial town, which contributed to the pollution concerns Pasir Gudang is facing today.
Back then, she claimed, the field of city planning was not very established in the country, so development plans were usually carried out by land surveyors and architects.
The initial development had focused so heavily on the industrial zones that nearly no attention was paid to future development, such as the nearby residential areas which began popping up nearby to accommodate those attracted by the burgeoning job opportunities.
“The main thing is that the planning came after the development,” she said.
Residential areas in Pasir Gudang include Taman Air Biru, Taman Mawar, Taman Bukit Dahlia, Taman Scientex, Taman Pasir Putih, Taman Tanjung Puteri and Taman Tanjung Puteri Resort.
While the state of the rivers in Pasir Gudang is worrying, Zaki said that polluted rivers usually do not directly affect residents’ health, as they do not use the river water directly.
“The water (at these polluted rivers) is not used for drinking water or supply,” he said.
Incidents such as the one at Sungai Kim Kim a few months ago are largely caused by illegal dumping, which Zaki stressed can occur anywhere, and not just at polluted rivers.
Mohd Azman, 47, is now used to the strange smells and smoke in Pasir Gudang, having lived there for over a decade. Even so, he never imagined something like the Sungai Kim Kim incident would take place.
“We thought such things (weird smells and smoke) were normal, but not to the point of people being hospitalised.”
Just like Azman, retiree Hashim Mahmud, who has lived in nearby Taman Tanjung Puteri for seven years, said the worst he experienced before this was a bad stench from the river.
While the health of the Seletar Orang Asli tribe may not be affected, the state of the rivers nevertheless eats into their livelihood.
A Seletar community lives in a small enclave at the estuary where Sungai Masai feeds into the Johor Straits. Many of them had been relocated to Kampung Kuala Masai from their ancestral lands at Stulang Laut.
Here, they live off the sea, fishing and catching crabs to sell in the market. Nowadays, they say, there are no longer any fish or crabs in the sea in front of their village.
“When I first moved here in 2003, it was easy to fish here. If you sit for an hour, you can easily get three to four fish.
“Now, if we were to sit here, even for a whole day, even if we finish eating five packets of Maggi noodles, we might still not be able to catch a single fish,” said Keleh Lah, 38, a village head and leader of the fishermen’s association there.
His fellow villager, 53-year-old San Yunos, said the water has become so dirty and the mangroves are all gone, that villagers must travel by boat for two hours to the waters off Pengerang to fish.
In order to maximise fuel, which costs about RM120 for a return trip, San said he would usually stay in Pengerang, sleeping on his boat for two nights.
At Pengerang, his catch over two days would usually net him about RM400 to RM500, leaving him with just under RM300 to show for it.
The indigenous community at Kampung Orang Asli Teluk Kabong, near Sungai Kim Kim, have also complained of a similar loss to their livelihood. As they told The Star, the stench from the river has also driven customers away.
Former Johor menteri besar Osman Sapian previously suggested that factories there be relocated to a more suitable location following the Sungai Kim Kim incident.
And while Yeo has said that rapid development and the high density of chemical-based industries in the area were major contributors to the environmental impact there, she stopped short of saying the government will relocate the plants.
That decision, the minister said, was under the jurisdiction of the Johor government.
Gan, meanwhile, pointed out that relocation would only shift the problem elsewhere.
Cost is another matter, as cleaning polluted rivers is very difficult and very expensive.
Zaki pointed out that the River of Life project, which is aimed at improving water quality at the eight main rivers in the Klang Valley, cost RM4.4 billion.
“So before we spend that money, let’s talk about preserving the rivers that are still clean or relatively clean as of this moment,” he said.
Zaki shared his pictures of Sungai Kim Kim with Malaysiakini, which he took at the same location in 2012 and 2017. The pictures clearly show the drastic change in the colour of the water from brown to black.
Back in 2012, Sungai Kim Kim had a WQI of 64. Five years later, this dropped to 57, signalling worsening levels.
Sungai Masai, meanwhile, which was a Class III river with a WQI of 64 in 2014, had become a Class IV river with a WQI of 48 three years later.
The WQI of Sungai Buluh suffered a severe drop from 50 in 2014 to 34 in 2017, almost becoming a Class V river.
In the end, it boils down to the law. Without addressing the loopholes in terms of how acceptable levels of discharge are gauged, authorities cannot begin to improve river management systems.
This should be done in tandem with heightened and more stringent law enforcement, as well as a review of the factory density in Pasir Gudang.
Seemingly taking heed, Yeo has since vowed to shutter all illegal factories in Pasir Gudang, and stressed that the DOE has stepped up enforcement efforts by "300 percent" after Sungai Kim Kim.
The government also stated it would not approve any more applications for the construction of new chemical plants in the area.
Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin, meanwhile, announced that the state will set up a special committee to coordinate all parties involved in handling pollution issues in Pasir Gudang.
But is this enough to solve the problem with Pasir Gudang’s rivers?
Malaysiakini has contacted Yeo, her deputy Isnaraissah Munirah Majilis and the Johor DOE enforcement director on their intended efforts in this regard, and is still awaiting a response.
Johor DOE director Wan Abdul Latiff Wan Jaffar, meanwhile, told Malaysiakini that his staff are compiling the necessary data and information required and would issue a response soon.
While reversing the current state of the rivers may not be an immediate solution, Zaki, who has spent over 16 years monitoring the quality of rivers in the country, stressed they must not be allowed to get worse.
"Rest assured, every other week there is a new pollution source that is being discharged into the river.
"Emphasis needs to be placed upon preserving the rivers that are still clean or even slightly polluted. Make sure they won’t become severely polluted five years from now."