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MALAYSIA: Fighting the Flow of River Privatisation

Anil Netto

PENANG, Feb 24 2006 (IPS) - Plans to privatise three major rivers in densely populated Selangor state, in May, have sparked an outcry among concerned groups, alarmed at common natural resources falling into private hands.

Under 30-year concessions, three firms will manage a river each and ensure cleanliness. They will be required to repair riverbanks damaged by sand excavation and deepen the rivers to prevent overflowing and flooding.

In return, they will be allowed to dredge the rivers for sand and to carry out ‘controlled development projects’ to generate revenue. They would also be allowed to organise eco-tourism and recreational activities.

But, crucially, it is unclear whether the firms will be allowed to sell the water from the rivers, which are a key source of water supply in the central region of the peninsula.

The government say it wants to privatise the Selangor river, the Langat river and the Klang river because they are not clean and, officials argue, the state incurs a huge expenditure in their upkeep. The privatisation would involve only those sections of the three rivers falling within Selangor state that also hosts the national capital.

But all the rivers within the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur have their source in Selangor. An official said the Selangor state government was ready to negotiate with Kuala Lumpur to expand the scope of the privatisation to include the sections of the rivers that lie within the city.

The government says it has already identified the three firms but their names have not yet been disclosed.

The move comes at a time when a major revamp of the country’s water supply management system is on the cards. Selangor and Kuala Lumpur privatised their water supply management in January 2005 when a private firm, Syabas, was awarded a 30-year concession.

Like the water supply privatisation, the move to privatise the three rivers has drawn heavy criticism. ”There is a lack of transparency in the concession agreement,” said workers’ rights group Tenaganita, adding that there was ”absolutely no consultation with civil society.”

This lack of transparency, the group added, would only breed corruption and result in the loss of resources and damage to the environment purely for the sake of profit.

These are no ordinary rivers; they are of strategic importance. The Selangor river is a major source of potable water for Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. It supplies water to vegetable farms, plantations and industry along the river besides supporting freshwater aquaculture farms.

The 120-km Langat river is another vital source of potable water, with a major water intake works at Cheras, near Kuala Lumpur.

The Klang river basin, on the other hand, is the most densely populated region in the country. The river supports close to four million people, about a sixth of the country’s population, in Kuala Lumpur and parts of Selangor. Two dams lie at the upper part of the basin for flood mitigation and water supply, but stretches of the river farther downstream are polluted and constrained by development, resembling little more than storm drains.

More than half the rivers in Malaysia are polluted by raw or partially treated sewage as well as industrial effluents, agricultural run-offs, waste from animal husbandry and land development, and other rubbish.

Critics say the decision to privatise the rivers puts an uncomfortable spotlight on government agencies previously tasked with maintaining those rivers and, more importantly, with tackling the real sources of pollution.

”This whole idea of cleaning up the rivers raises questions about the role of (agencies such as) the drainage and irrigation department,” says Charles Santiago, coordinator of the Coalition Against Water Privatisation, which has received the backing of 127 civil society groups.

Under fire, the Selangor state government has responded by saying that the privatisation was aimed at ensuring the cleanliness of the rivers and not at turning them into private properties.

”There is no such thing as having to pay for taking water from the rivers,” said the state’s chief minister Mohamad Khir Toyo. People would still be allowed to jog along the rivers, and swim or fish in them, he pointed out. ”The rivers will not become private properties.”

Still, it is not clear what control or ownership the firms would have over water supply from the rivers and how they would finance their operations. Moreover, there are huge questions as to whether the private firms can keep the rivers clean without tackling the sources of pollution.

And it is not just the usual civil society groups who are raising such awkward questions. ”How are the concessionaires going to keep the rivers clean? Scrub the waters?” asked P Gunasegaram, the group executive editor of the business weekly ‘The Edge’, in a scathing commentary that questioned the lack of an open tender for the privatisation.

”For clean rivers, you have to control what flows into the river,” he added, pointing out that this required proper sewage and waste disposal, reduction of run-offs and enforcement of laws. ”Are the concessionaires ever going to be able to do that?”

This is not the first time that rivers in Asia have been threatened with privatisation. In a 1998 project, a stretch of the Sheonath river was handed over to a local firm under an agreement to supply water to the Borai industrial centre – the first case of river privatisation in India. The move sparked protests from local communities who depended on the river for their livelihoods.

More recently, other South Asian groups campaigned against a controversial plan to interlink trans-boundary rivers and divert one-third of the water of the Brahmaputra river, 60 percent of which is used for irrigation and sustaining the river basin’s ecosystem.

Santiago laments that those responsible for privatising rivers in Malaysia are not looking at the long-term future of the country and sustainable resource management. ”They are only looking at short-term interests and the profits of industry.”

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