• Johor River contamination: water scarcity risks for industries in Singapore and Malaysia

    21 May 2019

    In recent weeks, Singapore has raised concerns over water contamination from Johor, a southern state in Malaysia, after back to back cases of pollutants being dumped in the river emerged in March and April 2019. Singapore relies heavily on water supply from the state’s main Johor River and draws 250 million gallons of water per day (mgd) via PUB, its national water agency, under the Johor River Water Agreement signed in 1962. In return, Johor buys treated water from Singapore for about 2 percent of the water imported. Geopolitically, the river plays an important role as it flows into the Straits of Johor, separating the island city-state from the Malay Peninsula.

    Despite its significance, seven incidents involving illegal discharge of toxic wastes from oil mills, chemical plants, and poultry farms have been recorded in and around the river since 2017 causing Singapore to worry about its water security. In March 2019, two factory owners and a truck driver believed to be from an illegal tyre recycling factory were charged over an illegal dumping of 20 to 40 tons of chemical wastes into Kim Kim River in Johor. The incident caused over 2,000 people from Pasir Gudang town to fall ill after inhaling methane gas from the toxic discharge. The initial cleanup further complicated matters as the contractors were reportedly inexperienced in dealing with chemical wastes. Due to public outcry, local authorities inspected all 254 chemical plants in the vicinity within days although no detailed outcomes of the inspections have emerged since.

    Not long after the initial incident, Sayong, Benut and Machap Rivers were contaminated with high-levels of ammonia after a reservoir at a bio-composite center next to an oil palm refinery burst in early April 2019. Subsequently, five water treatment plants, including those owned by Singapore’s national water agency PUB, temporarily suspended operations for a few days, disrupting water supplies to 75,000 customers in Johor. However, Singapore was not affected as the PUB increased its production at desalination plants and local water works to mitigate the impact.

    The map illustrates the five rivers in Johor, Malaysia which were affected by the contaminations, as well as the five water treatment plants,including Singapore’s PUB waterworks.

    Despite the effort by authorities to step up regulatory actions against illegal practices by factories over the years, such as shutting down a fertilizer factory and a poultry farm in 2017 for waste dumping and revoking an oil palm refinery’s raw water abstraction license, the latest series of contamination indicate weak governance and apparent substandard practices by firms due to limited awareness on the benefits of clean water to industries.

    Although the risk of water contamination in consumable goods is far greater than in manufacturing, water is crucial for many industries as it is required in almost every stages of production, processing, and cleaning. The Unite States Geological Survey estimates that more than 18 million gallons of water are withdrawn daily for industrial use alone.

    In some industries, water is used as an ingredient for chemical chain reaction to create new product components, such as paper chemicals, consumable products, refined petroleum, and metals, while others use it as a lubricant, coolant as well as to clean and sterilize processing equipment. Organizations may have to address challenges arising from impurities in water, which are likely to be packed with tiny particles as a result of contaminations. Over time, these particles can slowly corrode machinery & equipment or could result in large scale contamination. This can happen for factories that normally use recycled waters for repetitive cleaning procedures which exposes it to the risk of erosion.

    The Kim Kim River incident highlighted the possibility of transnational pollution and its effect on water quality in both countries if contamination occurs in the main Johor River. Resilience360 data shows that several industrial clusters including chemicals, pharmaceutical, engineering, and manufacturing sites are located in Singapore and Johor which are also likely to be dependent on the river for production and manufacturing purposes.

    Customers with suppliers located in the proximity of shared rivers or streams should ensure that manufacturers comply with local and international regulatory frameworks, such as the Industry Code of Practice on Chemicals Classification and Hazard Communication, to mitigate risks of non-compliance. To effectively do so, hazardous chemicals should be properly managed, stored, labeled, and disposed in a correct manner. Factories specializing in chemicals may also want to consider monitoring the air quality in their surroundings to check if hazardous compounds have seeped into the air. Any regulatory action over unlawful waste disposals can not only tarnish the firm’s brand but also incur financial losses. Organizations that adopt responsible environmental sustainability practices are in a better position to manage risks and improve operational efficiency.

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