PUTRAJAYA: Singapore has raised with the Malaysian government its concerns about pollution in the Johor River as well as its long-term yield, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Apr 9), adding that it is in both countries' interests to work together to ensure sustainable water supply.
Mr Lee was speaking at a joint press conference during the leaders’ retreat alongside his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad.
He noted that just last week, Singapore's PUB waterworks at Kota Tinggi was forced to shut operations because of high ammonia levels.
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The Johor River had become polluted after a reservoir at a bio-composite centre next to an oil palm refinery in Sedenak burst, causing the contaminated water to flow into the water body.
According to Malaysia media reports, about 17,000 homes in the Malaysian town of Kulai had their water supply disrupted because of the incident.
Mr Lee said that if the Johor River suffers an incident like the recent one at Kim Kim River, the effects “will be disastrous for both countries”.
In March, thousands fell ill after an illegal dumping of chemical waste into the Kim Kim River in Pasir Gudang, Johor. Many were hospitalised, including students at nearby schools. More than 100 schools were ordered shut as a result. Nine people were later arrested.
SUSTAINABLE WATER SUPPLY WILL REDUCE POTENTIAL FOR CONFLICT
At the joint press conference, Mr Lee noted that Johor has built water plants on the Johor River, upstream of PUB’s waterworks at Kota Tinggi.
He said that these plants, together with PUB's Kota Tinggi water works, could possibly draw more water than the river can sustain.
There is a need to study how to meet both Johor and Singapore’s water requirements for the remainder of the Water Agreement, he added.
READ: Ammonia pollution in Sungai Sayong disrupts water supply to 17,000 households in Malaysia's Kulai
The 1962 Water Agreement, which expires in 2061, entitles Singapore to draw up to 250 million gallons a day (mgd) of water from the Johor River.
Singapore pays 3 sen per thousand gallons of raw water and sells treated water back to Johor at 50 sen per thousand gallons, a fraction of the cost of treating the water.
Johor is meanwhile entitled to a daily supply of treated water of up to 2 per cent or 5 mgd of the water supplied to Singapore. In practice, however, Singapore has been supplying 16 mgd of treated water to Johor at its request.
Malaysia had previously acknowledged that it chose not to ask for a review of the agreement in 1987 because it benefited from the pricing arrangement.
"It is in both countries' interests to work together to ensure sustainable water supply for both sides, which will reduce the potential for further conflict in the future," said Mr Lee.
He added: "We agreed that our two AGs (Attorney-Generals) should continue their dialogue, and understand each other's perspectives and concerns."
WATER AGREEMENT A “FUNDAMENTAL FOUNDING DOCUMENT” FOR SINGAPORE
On his part, Dr Mahathir said that resolving the longstanding issue of water price is a "priority” for his government. He noted that Putrajaya was “engaged in active negotiations” in the price review in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Prime Minister Lee and I have agreed to find an amicable solution to this issue, including the possibility of dispute resolution through arbitration on a mutually agreed basis,” he said.
READ: Singapore has been "clear and consistent" that Malaysia has lost right to review price of water: MFA
When asked during the press conference if Malaysia’s request to review the water price was reasonable, Mr Lee said he could understand why Dr Mahathir saw it as a political necessity to press hard for a review.
“But I also explained it to Dr Mahathir to see Singapore’s point of view, that this was an agreement reached among the two water authorities … in 1962, and subsequently guaranteed by the two governments … in 1965 in the Separation Agreement.”
“It is a fundamental founding document for us and we have to go according to this document," he said.
He added: “It is a basic term on which the two countries decided to manage our relationship … To be able to change that is a very high hurdle."
Mr Lee said that while he can understand Dr Mahathir’s perspective, he hoped that the latter would also be able to see Singapore’s perspective on why the water agreement is such a sacrosanct item.
“Let us try to find a way forward which enables us to talk constructively about this issue and hopefully be able to make some progress,” he said.
He reiterated that one of the items that both sides need to discuss is the security of the supply of water from Johor, including the pollution and including the yield.
Singapore needs to make sure it is is able to get the 250 million gallons, which is what is specified under the Water Agreement, he said.
Commenting on what would be a reasonable water price, Mr Lee said: “Our ministers will talk. To ask me what is a reasonable water price now is to prejudge the question.”