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Penang needs PWMP more than PTMP

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Is the state’s long-term water security not as important to Penang as its transport needs, wonders Mike Tan.

Have you heard of the PWMP, the Penang Water Master Plan?

Of course you haven’t, simply because it doesn’t exist** – or if a similar blueprint does exist, it is not on a similar scale of priority and prominence now being given to the RM46bn “Penang Transport Master Plan” (PTMP).

Penang state prides itself as an island city-state that apparently models itself after Singapore. Yet it does not have a comprehensive long-term organised plan not just to manage its water supply but also to promote water security and resilience in the face of the looming challenges posed by climate change. Instead, it continues to highlight that its water rates are the cheapest in Malaysia.

In January Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said the state would invest RM501m in water supply projects till 2021. These projects include a third twin-underwater link from mainland Penang to Penang Island, a water transfer scheme from Perak, and upgrades to water treatment plants.

Nothing was said about the crucial issue related to Penang water supply – the protection of the Ulu Muda rainforests in Kedah. The Ulu Muda region serves as a catchment area that feeds the Muda River, which is the main source of water for Penang.

The Muda River’s importance to Penang cannot be overstated as 80% of the state’s raw water supply comes from it. If something happens to this supply, there will be no water for the entire mainland Penang as well as the South-West District and Balik Pulau on the island.

During World Water Day celebrations in Penang June last year, Chow championed the Ulu Muda cause and went to the extent of appealing to non-governmental organisations for their support to “Save Ulu Muda”.

He brought up the idea of the federal government providing compensation to Kedah as a possible method of protecting Ulu Muda. “If possible, we look forward to working with Kedah to request for federal compensation in lieu of ‘forest premiums’ for logging as well as ask for federal assistance to gazette, manage and protect Ulu Muda as a regional water catchment area,” he said.

What has happened to this effort? In less than a year, the Penang state government appears to have devoted much of its focus on the over-ambitious transport and land reclamation project dubbed the “PTMP”. The first phase, estimated to cost RM23bn, comprises three priority projects: massive land reclamation off southern Penang Island, an elevated light rail transit line and the six-lane Pan-Island Link (phase one) highway.

Something similar to the financial model in Chow’s Ulu Muda idea is being used for the PTMP: in this case, it involves securing a RM1bn loan from the federal government to “jumpstart” and ensure that all three PTMP mega-projects can be undertaken simultaneously.

Why ask for RM1bn for a transport project when water security is downplayed or receives less prominence?

The latest development in the Penang water sector involves an announcement by the Penang Water Authority, which Chow chairs. Entitled “Hot & Dry Weather Alert: Please Use Water Wisely in Penang, Immediately”, it outlines the severe water conditions in Penang and the declining water levels at the state’s dams and at the Muda River. It also seeks public cooperation to reduce consumption.

But no amount of reduction by the public will solve Penang’s water woes if the Muda River dries up because of the shrinking water catchment area due to logging and if climate change resilience is not built up.

Perhaps Penang should consider focusing on a PWMP instead of the PTMP. Such a PWMP should highlight a major priority: the protection of the Ulu Muda forests and the water catchment areas that feed the Muda River.

The state government could even request that the loan that it is now seeking for the PTMP be redirected to the PWMP in the form of compensation to Kedah – on condition that the funds are used to protect and conserve the Ulu Muda region.

Under the PWMP, the Penang government should also impose a water conservation tariff on industrial and commercial users in the state while maintaining the water conservation surcharge for residential users if their water usage exceeds a certain monthly volume.

The Penang state government would not face any difficulty in kicking off a PWMP with proper goals, objectives and implementation methods as they have been engaging local water conservation groups all this while.

The PWMP idea mooted here is just a simple five-minute idea, and as such may be ridiculed by hardcore PTMP supporters. But the glaring fact is such a simple idea would go a long way in addressing a major issue that Penang has yet to solve.

Imagine what could be done if the Penang state government were to put as much time, effort and resources into solving the water problem instead of wasting it on a controversial and over-ambitious transport and land reclamation project.

Is the state’s long-term water security not as important to Penang as transport? Any transport enthusiast would realise that water is not only important to the human population of Penang, but also to the cars that will ply the roads of the PIL1 highway.

The chief minister seems to have made PTMP the centrepiece of his legacy, but if Penang’s long-term water security is neglected, there is a chance he might go down in history for allowing a once verdant state to turn into a parched land.

Mike Tan, an Aliran member, is a former associate editor of Theantdaily.

** The Penang water authority has since clarified that there is a “Masterplan Study for Potable Water Supply in Penang until Year 2050”.

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