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The mess of poor town planning

people walking through the park

MY previous columns on town planning focused on how the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) did not provide for legally-required green spaces when approving development for the city.

Admittedly though, the loss of recreational parks isn’t so big a deal for urbanites since development brings with it the increased potential for economic growth. In fact, to ensure that our present lifestyle can be maintained, we need more consumers to, well, consume.

This kind of thinking, however, ignores the aspect of sustainability. The impact of such thinking can be elucidated by looking at our sewerage system policy, and how the failure to implement it screws up our environment.

A little background

Sewage was once under the local councils’ purview. A clause in the Local Government Act allowed assessment taxes to be used to provide for these services. In 1993, however, the Federal Government decided to remove the clause in order to privatise the entire maintenance and development of sewerage systems under Indah Water Konsortium (IWK). This was made legal by the Sewerage Services Act.

With IWK in charge of the sewerage system, this meant that developers had to get IWK’s approval with regards to the development’s sewerage system plans. This is on top of any other approvals the developer may need from MBPJ and other utility service providers.

Sewerage policy

(pic courtesy of KW Mak)
Policy matters for sewerage systems are found in Guidelines for Developers — Sewerage Policy for New Developments published by the Housing and Local Government Ministry, which IWK must follow.

The first step in the planning approval process for a sewerage system involves cash. The rules require developers to pay a contribution fee to IWK known as the sewerage capital contribution rate. The rate is 1.65% of a development project’s selling price or market value. The contribution is meant to pay for the building of sewerage treatment plants.

So, for a project with 1,000 houses valued at RM120,000 each, the developer would have to pay RM1.98 million.

Next, the facility to be built must take into account the population density of the proposed project since the treatment plant must cope with the sewage that would be generated. Population density for residential properties is calculated at five persons per house. The average person produces 225 litres of sewage per day.

So, for a project with 1,000 houses, the sewerage treatment plant servicing the area must be designed to store and treat 1.125 million litres of sewage a day or 33.75 million litres of sewage a month. Treated sewage must be environmentally safe according to the prescribed guidelines so that it can be discharged back to the environment.

Sewage treatment plants cannot be constructed inside or underneath buildings. A buffer zone must be maintained between these facilities and other buildings. This design limitation means that the facility would have a maximum carrying capacity set at the point of construction with a limited upgrade option as the rules require a buffer zone between the treatment plant and other buildings. This is why it is important to get the population density calculated right at the development planning stage.

Developing in developed areas

The contribution fee mechanism is pretty straightforward if the development is in an entirely new area where there is ample space to design and place both the buildings and the sewerage treatment plant. However, placing a new building in an already developed area is more complicated than just building more pipes or sewerage treatment plants.

For example, houses in old developed areas like SS2 and Section 19 in Petaling Jaya are all connected to imhoff tanks. This is an old system where sewage from surrounding houses are pumped to these tanks and stored.

According to IWK, the imhoff tanks are meant to “provide limited treatment of sewage and are not a suitable long-term solution. The effluent from imhoff tanks can rapidly deteriorate if the tanks are not properly maintained. The effluent from these tanks will not meet the environmental requirements of the Department of Environment.”

Since imhoff tanks cannot discharge environmentally safe effluents, IWK must periodically get a tanker truck to remove the sludge to transport it to treatment plants. The recommended service level for these imhoff tanks is 1,000 households, or roughly a population of 5,000 persons.

Despite the limitation of the existing sewerage system however, several high-density projects were allowed in the area with limited upgrade works done to the surrounding sewerage system. As a result, I have had to deal with irate calls from residents about overflowing sewage, along with threats that the complainants would vote for the Barisan Nasional (BN) if I didn’t fix the problem.

Side rant: the development projects in the area were all approved by the previous BN government, which caused the overflowing sewage problem. Talk about literally having to clean up someone else’s sh*t.

Environmental concerns and sustainability

This river looks a lot cleaner than our
average sungai… Alex E Proimos
| Flickr)

Overflowing sewage goes into the drains, which are all connected to our rivers. Our rivers are our source of drinking water.

With the imhoff tanks clearly unable to contain all the effluents that are presently being generated, should more development projects be allowed in the area before the tanks are upgraded?

Obviously, the answer to that question would be a simple “no” since the increase in population density would result in more untreated effluents discharged into our rivers, causing environmental pollution.

However, I’ve heard arguments that guidelines aren’t law and are only meant to be followed loosely. Should the public buy that argument and allow the government to get away with this interpretation of what guidelines mean, we can certainly expect to find more sewage in our drains and rivers. favicon

MBPJ councillor KW Mak learned that the flow of sewage is divided into three speeds, namely the average dry weather flow, the average wet weather flow, and peak wet weather flow. The flow speed is fastest during peak wet weather, which means the complaints of overflowing sewage would coincide with rainy weather. He believes that proper development planning would go a long way in preventing a terrible mess for ratepayers and local councillors.

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9 Responses to “The mess of poor town planning”

  1. Lau Weng San says:

    I quote “guidelines aren’t law and are only meant to be followed loosely” and find that this statement is very disturbing. It is true that guidelines are not law but it does not mean that the authority does not need to follow it strictly. Guidelines are a reflection of a government’s policy and it has to be followed strictly. If guidelines are only meant for show, then are we basically treating policies the same way as well? And at times when government policy is not necessarily enacted through legislation, it can be enforced via guidelines. Najib’s NKRA, NEM and GTP are not legislated through any act of Parliament, but when the federal government started [implementing] it, they are doing it through various guidelines and circulars.

  2. Mikazuki says:

    Whatever happened to good town planning? Does development mean that we need to sacrifice the cleanliness of our rivers? I wonder who is the knucklehead that has been approving project after project without thinking about the possibility of sewage overflow.

    It’s our drinking water, for pete’s sake! How gross can it get before any action is taken by relevant authorities in controlling all these devolopement projects shooting out in an area with poorly maintained sewage treatment plants?

    I’m scared to think of what we might drink in the near future. Don’t tell me it’s our own s***? That is just way too gross!

    Side note, I would like to say good job for exposing the low cost flat scam in MBPJ. We need more people like you in MBPJ to clean up all the wrong doings of certain quarters in MBPJ. Keep up the good work.

  3. Neptunian says:

    “The rules require developers to pay a contribution fee to IWK known as the sewerage capital contribution rate. The rate is 1.65% of a development project’s selling price or market value.”

    Herein lies the real problem. The very first rule in the guidelines is a fallacy – rich people shit more – if I build multi-million houses in the same place, I would have to pay more contribution, meaning “rich people” shit more!

    Govt regulations and guidelines are full of these kinds of rubbishy stuff. Makes no sense or logic. Makes one wonder at the “engineers” who recommend these guidelines.

    The first thing that the govt (state for state matters – frankly, I have given up on federal) should do is to commission a study group to look at the published guidelines and change those that make no logical sense. It may take a while, so an initial phase should be done to identify the more critical “guidelines” and then go into details. Publish a list of “guidelines” that will be looked into and a targeted timeline set. This will no doubt show that the govt is serious in making Selangor into a better place, where proper planning is a given. May take a while, but if you initiate this now, you will have the next two terms to right matters – for sure!

  4. KW Mak says:

    @ Neptunian

    1. The guidelines are from the Housing and Local Government Ministry, meaning they are federal guidelines, so the correct body to petition to change them would be the federal ministry, not the state government.

    2. It is a fallacy to state the rich ‘sh*t more’ just because they are charged more based on the rate calculation. Houses for the rich would be limited in number (low density), yet the sewerage treatment plant needs to be built all the same. The cost to connect and maintain the sewerage for the rich would still have to be averaged out against the number of houses that are built, so the rich would have to pay more because there are less people paying for the same thing.


  5. Cecilia says:

    Have seen many sewage ponds in poor state of management. Am also wondering if the discharge from sewage water treatment ponds in housing estates meet the EQA (Sewage and Industrial Effluents) standards.

  6. EP says:

    Hi Mak,

    When are you gonna act like a government instead of [DAP-type opposition] – always playing to the press and crowd. I am talking about your lack of collective responsibility in exposing the MBPJ low-cost scandal – I know for sure you did not go through the agreed procedure before going to the press[…] – typical DAP!


  7. Lawrig says:

    Thank you Mr Mak for this very informative article, as well as the explanation that followed. It is truly sad that we Malaysians have gotten used to the quick fix actions, which in the long run is not cost effective. It’s really a waste of taxpayers hard earned ringgit.

  8. KW Mak says:

    @ EP

    Am I on trial?

    If so, please lay down the charges specifically.

    Ex: playing the crowd is much too general a term – please specify which crowd and how I played them.


  9. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    I’m a layperson but it seems to me that the federal government having handed over something as fundamental as sewage treatment to Indah Water was asking for trouble. Building a house is complicated enough, since 1993 an extra bunch of private contractors have to be dragged in to make sure there’s enough plumbing connected to the toilets. Between the developer, IWK, and the local government, you can end up with a “right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing” situation. Surely leaving local governments in charge of sewerage would have resulted in less paperwork and other complications.

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