Outgoing SPAN Commissioners: Future Plans “Effectively Stymied”

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All the commissioners of the National Water Commission (SPAN) received letters on April 19 backdating their termination as members of the commission to April 10.

Although the minister is within his powers under Section 11(1) of the National Water Services Commission Act to dismiss the commissioners summarily without assigning any reason, this is particularly inappropriate for several reasons.

First, the fundamental ethos of transparency and accountability require that reasons be given to justify any such action.

Second, the commissioners were appointed, not on the basis of any political affiliation, but strictly for their established professional expertise, vast experience and knowledge in water services management and related technical, logistics, regulatory and legal matters. Commissions must remain apolitical at all times to serve the greater interest of the rakyat and the nation’s higher calling without fear or fervour or political interventions.

Third, and perhaps for that reason, the commission had in its 18 months, already put in place advanced plans to transform SPAN from within as well as water supply and sewerage services to render it sustainable.

Fourth, to strengthen SPAN’s regulatory role, the Integrity and Anti-Corruption Framework for Licence Holders and Certified Agencies was launched in September 2019, under which water supply and sewerage companies were required to set aside at least 1% of their operational budgets to combat corruption, strengthen integrity and corporate governance within their organisations. In this context, SPAN conducted additional special performance audits on water utilities and appointed an integrity officer to oversee the tender process for their sewerage system.

Fifth, the enforcement division was strengthened. Indeed, the commission has approved several proposals to amend the relevant laws, scheduled for tabling at the next parliamentary sitting. Essentially to tighten the regulatory provisions relating to enforcement and review of tariff; both crucial to sustain the industry and control the perennial pollution of rivers and water bodies.

Sixth, there were also firm plans to engage the wider public and stakeholders, including schools and universities, though extensive town hall meetings and other avenues. Essentially, they are to highlight the critical value of water to livelihoods and quality of life for our people and national security.

Finally, SPAN was focused on addressing proactively the perennial river pollution which adversely impacts the quality of water supply. SPAN ordered the shutdown last year of the Ayer Ganda water treatment plant in Perak which had unacceptable levels of arsenic. SPAN also highlighted the dumping of plastic and electronic waste on the banks of a tributary of Sg Muda which is the man source of water supply for Penang and Perak.

Many other examples abound of water disruptions in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur due to serious pollution of toxic wastes dumped in rivers with devastating consequences, as seen in the Sg Kim Kim, Johor episode. SPAN was touting stronger action against wilful and irresponsible water source contamination.

An action plan with seven initiatives to combat river pollution was formulated following a stakeholders’ seminar in August last year. This included upgrading sewerage treatment plants’ capacity and requiring water utilities to prepare a water safety plan taking into account pollution risks disruptive of operations at their water treatment plants.

Unfortunately, with this premature termination, the commission’s work and future plans have been effectively stymied.

We must emphasise that access to good clean water is a fundamental human right that affects life itself and is hence protected by the right to life provision of the federal constitution. As the World Bank noted in its recent report, deteriorating water quality reduces a country’s GDP growth.

Climate change has exacerbated the water supply threat. We now witness irregular and aberrant rainfalls with prolonged dry seasons which seriously affect water catchments, river and water bodies.

All this points to the need for much more to be done; all of which we have set out in a document to be sent to the minister.

On no account should SPAN be the nesting ground for political appointees. This will undermine its independent status and its role to provide the necessary checks and balances to safeguard the sustainability, quality and security of our country’s precious water supply in the long term.

This will bring to naught the critical transformation process initiated by the outgoing commissioners and ultimately undermine SPAN and the ministry’s vision and mission to transform SPAN into a more dynamic, transparent, efficient and consultative regulatory body. This is what the public must guard against.

We have also alerted the prime minister by writing to him directly appealing his intervention to make sure the above assignments, both transformation of the water industry and to combat water bodies and river pollution, are carried to completion.

Media statement issued on behalf of outgoing SPAN commissioners Sarajun Hoda Abdul Hassan, Abdul Halim Jantan, Dr Gurdial Singh Nijar, V Subramaniam, Faizal Parish Abdullah, Sanusi Paijan, Yap Sin Chong and Steven Choong Shiau Yoon.