Water pollution is arguably the most fundamental environmental issue in Malaysia, since the country’s pollution problems began with water pollution caused by the three traditional industries of tin mining, natural rubber, and palm oil, as mentioned above. The government’s environmental programs therefore give high priority to control of water pollution.
Malaysia does not publish exact values of river water quality measurements for individual monitoring sites. Instead, water quality status is published under three rankings (clean, slightly polluted, and polluted), using a Water Quality Index (WQI) based on six parameters: pH, dissolved oxygen (DO), biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), ammonia nitrogen, and suspended solids (SS).
At present, water quality is monitored regularly at 908 sites on the 117 rivers in the country. Looking at results for 1997, which are the most recent published data, 24 of the 117 rivers were classified as clean, 68 as slightly polluted, and 25 as polluted. Comparing these results with the previous year (1996), the number of polluted rivers increased from 13 to 25, and the number of slightly polluted rivers increased from 61 to 68. Low rainfall, which resulted in reduced flow rates in the rivers, was cited as one of the reasons for the increased pollution. Sources of pollution identified as contributing to BOD loading include the agriculture-based industries (natural rubber and palm oil production, for instance), manufacturing industry, and livestock industry. Similarly, the livestock industry and domestic wastewater are cited as causes of worsening ammonia nitrogen pollution, and civil engineering works and land cultivation are blamed for the deterioration in SS status. Overall trends, however, if weather conditions and other such factors are excluded, show an improvement in river water quality brought about by Malaysia’s adoption of wastewater regulations and development of sewerage systems.
In addition, the 1997 results identify a total of 4,932 factories as sources of river water pollution. By industry type, the polluters included 966 food and beverage manufacturing factories (20%), 559 paper factories (11%), and 419 electrical and electronics plants (8%). The breakdown by state shows that Selangor had the highest number of industrial sources of pollution (1,668 factories), followed by Johor (945) and Negeri Sembilan (371). In terms of individual rivers, the basin of the Klang River which flows through Selangor had the highest number of industrial pollution sources.
Rivers in Malaysia generally appear to have high organic pollution loads and high SS concentrations. However, because water pollution status is published as an index (WQI), we were unable to obtain accurate information about concentrations of river pollutants over recent years for this research. Nor could we get a precise picture of the severity of river pollution in Malaysia.
In moves to solve these water pollution problems, Malaysia is putting sewerage services in place to deal with household wastewater which is a leading source of pollution. Unlike sewerage systems in Japan, the projected wastewater treatment systems will handle household wastewater only. In 1993, Malaysia passed the Sewerage Service Act, paving the way for privatizing the sewerage systems. The task of privatization was undertaken by Indah Water Konsortium Sdn. Bhd., which aims to deliver services to 79 percent of the population within the year 2000.
In regard to marine pollution, 794 samples were collected and analyzed from 226 locations in 1997. Of these, 87 monitored locations, or 34 percent of the total, were found to have contaminant levels exceeding the Proposed Marine Interim Standards. Oil and grease exceeded the limit (0 mg/l), as did total suspended solids (50 mg/l), and coliform bacteria (100 MPN/100ml). Detected copper levels were above the Proposed Marine Interim Standard (0.1 mg/l) in Sarawak, and mercury.
In 1996 the Malaysia government began monitoring groundwater in the Malay Peninsula with the aim of preventing possible contamination. No contamination has been detected to date and arsenic exceeded the limits (0.001 mg/l and 0. 1 mg/l, respectively) in Negeri Sembilan.
Air Pollution Problems
Air pollution in Malaysia falls into three main categories: air pollution due to exhaust gas from mobile emission sources such as motor vehicles, principally in urban areas; haze caused by the weather and by forest fires in neighboring Indonesia; and pollution caused by industrial activities.
Of these three problems, air pollution from mobile emission sources is of greatest concern. In 1997, there were roughly 8.5 million registered motor vehicles in Malaysia, climbing at the rate of 10 percent or more every year. According to 1997 figures, the estimated quantities of air pollutants released by these vehicles were 1.9 million tons of carbon monoxide (CO), 224,000 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), 101,000 tons of hydrocarbons (HC), 36,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and 16,000 tons of particulate matter. Mean values for the years 1993 to 1997 show that the amount of air pollutants from mobile emission sources accounts for 81 percent of all air pollution occurring in Malaysia. The problem will clearly become even more critical as the number of motor vehicles keeps on increasing.
As a result of these forms of pollution, Kuala Lumpur and its outskirts, which have heavy motor vehicle traffic, are exposed to high levels of NOx and SO2, and of particulate matter measured as PM10. Air pollution due to particulate matter, although still below the environmental standard at present, is growing more severe as time goes on.
Another problem is black smoke from diesel motor vehicles, the subject of numerous complaints from the public. In response, the government has launched a campaign to crack down on vehicles that violate the regulations. In regard to lead pollution, the government in 1991 introduced incentives to use unleaded gasoline, and since 1996 it has been obligatory for gasoline-fueled vehicles to have catalytic converters. These policies have been successful in reducing the level of lead in the atmosphere year by year.
Haze is another major problem in Malaysia. There were minor haze incidents in 1993 and 1994, years that recorded low rainfall, but haze on an unprecedented scale occurred from the summer of 1997 due to the huge forest fires that blazed in Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia. The haze that year continued for five months, from mid-July to November. In late September, when the haze was most severe, air pollution readings in Sarawak exceeded the “hazardous” level of 500 on the Air Pollutant Index (API). As well as affecting health and causing an increase in respiratory complaints, the 1997 haze incident had major economic costs, impacting on transportation services, tourism, and the fishing industry among others. The disaster prompted the government to subsequently ban all open burning within Malaysia.
Air pollution caused by industrial activities is still low in Malaysia. Including both industrial fuels and industrial processes, the industrial sector contributes only 7 to 8 percent of total air pollution in the country. Except for special industries such as quarry and rubber production, industrial activities are not a major factor.
There are currently 29 air quality monitoring stations in Malaysia, continuously taking air pollution readings. As with water quality, the results are published according to an API. The API consists of five parameters (PM10, CO, NO, SO2, and ozone (O3)), and readings are classified in five rankings(good, moderate, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous).
As measured by the API, air pollution nationally was at good to moderate levels in 1997, except in September when particulate matter was at high concentrations because of the haze, and air pollution was not a particular problem. Readings for the five substances used as parameters were also below the air quality standards, except for PM10 levels around September.
Industrial waste is the greatest environmental dilemma affecting Japanese companies and all those conducting industrial activities in Malaysia. Until 1997 Malaysia still had no approved final disposal facilities, as prescribed in the legislation, for dealing with the scheduled wastes defined in the set of regulations and orders enacted in 1989. For nearly a decade, Japanese companies had to go to great lengths, storing scheduled wastes on-site, for example, if they wanted to deal with their wastes in compliance with the law.
Scheduled wastes cover a wide range of industrial wastes. They include not only hazardous and dangerous substances but also sludge generated by general manufacturing processes and wastewater treatment. The volume of scheduled wastes generated in Malaysia is increasing every year as industrial activity booms. According to the Department of Environment (DOE) statistics, the volume rose from about 420,000 tons in 1994 to 630,000 tons in 1996. In 1997, the volume of scheduled wastes fell to280,000 tons, partly because of changes in statistical techniques, but also because of the advent of the currency and economic crisis. The volume is predicted to rise again, however, when the economy rebounds. According to 1997 figures, the chemical, textile, and metal working industries generated a large amount of scheduled wastes, and various types of sludge and acid wastes accounted for more than half of the generated wastes.
However, because Malaysia still has only one final disposal facility and the disposal costs are relatively high even in comparison with Japan, illegal dumping is an ongoing problem and incidents of illegal dumping make major news stories from time to time in the newspapers and other media.
Scheduled wastes are given high priority in Malaysia’s environmental programs and penalties for illegal dumping are quite strictly enforced. There are frequent court cases about illegal dumping, and the waste disposal issue will likely be a headache in future years for Japanese companies and for other foreign companies operating in Malaysia.
In the past, foreign companies and other enterprises that were unable to store their scheduled waste onsite sometime exported them for resources recovery or reuse. However, in 1993 Malaysia ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, and since then the
government has taken an increasingly strict approach to the export of scheduled wastes. In 1997 there were 58 applications to export scheduled wastes, including 18 outstanding cases, but only 12 were approved within the year, and waste export is no longer allowed unless for resource recovery under the strictest criteria. In 1996 Malaysia drew up guidelines on transboundary waste movements with its nearest neighbor, Singapore, a country closely involved with Malaysia in regard to the flow of goods and materials.
Wastes other than scheduled wastes are treated and disposed of by private recycling and treatment companies under contract with the industrial or commercial concern that generated the waste. However, the wastes that remain after salvaging materials of value – plastics, cardboard and metal, for example – mostly goes to landfills.
Local authorities used to be responsible for collecting, treating, and disposing of municipal wastes, but in recent years there have been concerted moves to transfer the operation to privatized companies in which the state government and private sector both have a stake. The country has been divided into four regions, each with a private waste management operator already established. Municipal wastes are disposed of by landfill without any intermediate treatment, and most of the landfill is carried out by open dumping.
Specialist private operations have been set up to handle medical waste and other special wastes.
Other Environmental Problems
The various forms of development in Malaysia have resulted in deforestation, soil erosion, species endangering, and a raft of other problems of the natural environment and ecosystem. In relation to industrial activities, however, noise can be cited as a particular problem. Malaysia currently has regulations governing motor vehicle noise, but there are no specific regulations about general factory noise other than in the work environment. However, the Environment Quality Act 1974 has a section on noise controls, and the government is drafting further regulations. Monitoring of noise levels in the vicinity of factories and construction sites has also begun, following complaints from local residents.
Malaysia is also taking steps toward eliminating specific chlorofluorocarbons in order to protect the ozone layer. A unit of Montreal Protocol for protection of the ozone layer was set up in the Department of Environment (DOE) in January 1997, and a project for phasing out ozone depleting substances, supported by a grant from the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol, is now underway with the participation of several dozen companies. In addition, the problem of global warming comes under the jurisdiction of the Malaysia Meteorological Service, rather than the DOE. Approaches to this problem from the perspective of energy policies come under the Ministry of Energy, Communications and Multimedia, which is promoting the use of natural gas as an energy source.