Troubled waters: Why Pasir Gudang rivers are dying | Malaysiakini

Troubled waters:
Why Pasir Gudang rivers are dying

Reporting by Geraldine Tong, Wong Kai Hui. Videos by Vivian Yap. Photos by Azneal Ishak. Published 18 July 2019.

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.

Or scroll down to read the text version

Wastewater being discharged into Sungai Buluh, Pasir Gudang. It is not illegal for industrial factories to discharge wastewater as long as it remains within the legal limits set by the Environmental Quality Regulations 2009.

Wastewater being discharged into Sungai Buluh, Pasir Gudang. It is not illegal for industrial factories to discharge wastewater as long as it remains within the legal limits set by the Environmental Quality Regulations 2009.

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.

Factories belching black smoke in Pasir Gudang is a common sight.

It ended with some 2,775 people falling ill from exposure to toxic fumes, up to 200 – including schoolchildren – being hospitalised, 111 schools being shut temporarily, and the Johor government being left with a cleaning bill exceeding RM6 million.

And while that March incident as well as the more recent health scare there – the cause of which is still unknown – placed Pasir Gudang under intense nationwide scrutiny, it merely cemented what residents have known for years: that many of its rivers are badly polluted.

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.

“We are living in an industrial area so we know the risks, but we hope the factories or the authorities will not look at this as a trivial matter.”

Although it is unclear if the current predicament - in which hundreds of students and teachers experienced breathing difficulties, vomiting, dizziness and other symptoms - has anything to do with Pasir Gudang rivers, residents remain fearful that what happened in March could happen again unless something is done.

Not just Sg Kim Kim

But the problem isn’t isolated to Sungai Kim Kim. The heavy presence of factories in the town is widely believed to be one of the major causes of river degradation.

With over 2,000 factories – of which more than 250 are chemical plants – packed in 2,000ha, there is great cause for concern.

Pasir Gudang Industrial area, residential & schools

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.

Water Classes and Uses

Class I
Conservation of natural environment.
Water supply I - Practically no treatment necessary.
Fishery I - Very sensitive aquatic species.

Class IIA
Water supply II - Conventional treatment.
Fishery II - Sensitive aquatic species.

Class IIB
Recreational use with body contact.

Class III
Water supply III - Extensive treatment required.
Fishery III - Common, of economic value and tolerant species; livestock drinking.

Class IV

Class V
None of the above.

Source: EQR2017/WEPA

State 2019 ‘Dead’ river count
Johor 16
Selangor 5
Penang 3
Malacca 1

One Class V river, Sungai Tukang Batu, lies in Pasir Gudang. The other three rivers in town are classified as polluted – Sungai Perembi, Sungai Masai and Sungai Buluh. The DOE also lists Sungai Latoh, although it does not technically sit in the town.

Even the trees by the river are not spared from debris and muck.

Turbid waters, foul smells

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.

Sungai Kim Kim, which runs through industrial and residential zones, came under intense scrutiny after the March chemical dumping incident.

What’s ailing the rivers?

The pollution of rivers in Pasir Gudang and adjacent areas is due to a host of reasons.

One major factor is cramming in too many factories and plants in a single area, which would negate efforts by individual factories adhering to national standards when discharging waste.

“So even if all the factories are complying with the law, it will still affect water quality because there are just so many (factories),” water quality and modelling specialist Zaki Zainudin told Malaysiakini over the phone.

The law is the Environmental Quality (Industrial Effluent) Regulations 2009 which regulates the permissible levels of chemicals and other matters in industrial wastewater discharge.

There are similar regulations for discharges from sewage plants, solid waste transfer stations, landfills, prescribed premises and raw natural rubber plants.


Zaki Zainudin has been monitoring rivers in Malaysia for the past 16 years, including the ones in Pasir Gudang.

Another reason cited was that the sewage treatment system in Pasir Gudang is purportedly very “rudimentary”. As Zaki claimed, “The systems in those areas are not modernised.”

Organic sewage and sullage are also released into the water, as well as direct discharge from squatter areas and villages.

There is also the illegal dumping of waste and chemicals, such as what transpired in the Sungai Kim Kim incident.

According to Zaki, “industrial premises… are supposed to treat their waste before discharging them, but maybe they cannot meet the limits or for whatever reason, so they release the waste when no one is looking.”

Legal loophole

Even those disposing their wastewater within the legal limits can find themselves adding to the problem, thanks to a loophole in the law.

Sungai Buluh is surrounded by factories on both sides.

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
*Standard A 20
*Standard B 50
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.

Ammoniacal Nitrogen mg/L
*Standard A 10
*Standard B 20
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.

Fishing villages in Pasir Gudang before it was developed into an industrial zone.

Poor planning

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.

Pasir Gudang area

The Pasir Gudang area was turned into an industrial zone starting in the 1970s to pave the way for the Johor port, which serves as an alternative to the Singapore port.

The Pasir Gudang area was turned into an industrial zone starting in the 1970s to pave the way for the Johor port, which serves as an alternative to the Singapore port.

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.

Don’t use the water

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.

Workers taking a break outside one of the factories in the middle of Pasir Gudang’s industrial zones.

Marine life destroyed

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.

Keleh Lah, 38, is a village head and the leader of the fishermen’s association for the Seletar tribe at Kampung Kuala Masai.

“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.

Keleh and his fellow Orang Seletar have to travel two hours to Pengerang via boat to fish now.

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 skyline at the Orang Seletar’s enclave is dominated by industrial cranes in the background.

One of the first to relocate to Kampung Kuala Masai from Stulang Laut more than 20 years ago was Lag Bacik.

Lag said when she first moved here, the waters were clear but it has long since turned murky.

Lag, who is now over 70 years old, still remembers that when she first moved, the waters of Sungai Masai and the Johor Straits surrounding the village were clear, and filled with fish and crabs.

The waters have long since turned murky. She lamented that even if they were to find mussels in the water now, they would be dead.

She and her 27-year-old son Michael claimed that during the dry season, black water can be seen coming down Sungai Masai heading towards the Johor Straits.

The villagers also used to go to the mangrove area in Sungai Masai to catch crabs, but Lag said they no longer dare to set foot in the river.

“Sometimes we would get wounds and scabs on our feet. We do not dare (to walk in the river anymore),” she claimed.

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.

Difficult task ahead

Sadly, due to such varied factors contributing to the river pollution in Johor, resolving the Pasir Gudang situation is likely to be difficult.

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.

Yeo Bee Yin

Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin claims the state has stepped up enforcement against errant factories in Pasir Gudang.

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.

Addressing the law

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.

Even in a river as polluted as Sungai Buluh, life finds a way.

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."