Selasa, Mac 28, 2006

Water bills on the table next month

Claudia Theophilus

It’s confirmed. The two water bills will be tabled next month when Parliament reconvenes beginning March 13.

The draft National Water Services Commission Act (SPAN) and the Water Services Industry Act (WSIA) had undergone several rounds of consultation since late last year after being de-classified.

This is the first time a draft legislation is undergoing consultation with the various stakeholders, said Energy, Water and Communications Minister Dr Lim Keng Yaik last night, claiming credit for facilitating the process.

"We’re almost at the end now. We will (table) the bills in this parliamentary sitting which starts next month," he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur after a briefing for all members of Parliament.

The bills are scheduled for cabinet deliberation next Wednesday before a final tune-up a week later by the Attorney-General’s Chambers followed by the tabling in Parliament on an unspecified date.

"We have collected the input from the website that was set up for this purpose and will amend accordingly. I was told that there are no substantial changes," the minister said.

"There is, however, one suggested amendment in the SPAN Bill on the position of chairperson who doubles as chief executive officer. I think it’s better to separate both posts."

New entity

Lim also announced the creation of the Water Assets Management Company which is wholly-owned by the Finance Ministry.

Initially, the proposed body was known as Water Assets Holding Company.

"The Finance Ministry has approved it under the new name. It is a business entity fully-owned by the MOF aimed at long-term full cost recovery.

"It will raise funds in the capital market to build infrastructure such as dams, water treatment plants, and maintenance of old ones and laying of new pipes. These will then be leased to the operator (licencee under proposed laws)."

He expects everything - passing of the bills, formation of the water commission and corporatisation of state water departments - to fall into place by year-end.

Since their introduction, the bills have pit private and public interests in a face-off between Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd (Syabas), the concessionaire in Selangor, and a civil society grouping called Coalition Against Water Privatisation (CAWP).

Under the new framework, existing water services management concessionaires have to either migrate to the licencing system or be regulated by key performance indicators to be imposed on them.

Asked how the required migration will affect profitable concessionaires such as Syabas, Lim said: "We will find ways and means to talk to the concessionaires."

Syabas has been under fire due to a lack of transparency particularly over the terms of its concession agreement which reportedly allows for an upward tariff revision regardless of performance.

Full disclosure

On concerns and objections raised by CAWP with regards Syabas’ operations, he blamed it on the prevailing structure of privatisation.

"There is no proper regulatory body now. (And) I don’t like concessions. In the future, there will be no concession agreements," he stressed.

On whether the bills provided for full disclosure of all documents, procedures and transactions, Lim said SPAN has the power to do so.

" ... including all existing concession agreements," he added when asked on the implications.

Syabas, which landed the most lucrative concession in the richest state, has asked for a 15 percent tariff hike and stands to be compensated if the government rejects it.

Last Saturday, participants who participated in a public consultation on water privatisation rejected the two bills on grounds that they were attempts to privatise water management and related services.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress, one of the coalition’s major partners, called for the tabling to be deferred until the implementation and impact were better explained.

On this, Lim said people should not simply reject privatisation based on the notion alone.

"Don’t play politics. Why don’t they (CAWP) come and tell me exactly why they are rejecting the bills. Don’t just keep harping on rejecting the bills without giving specific reasons.

"I challenge them to do so. My ministry is always open to them," he said, indicating that opposition politicians were pressuring to discard the draft laws.

He also noted that Fomca, a consumer heavyweight in the CAWP, appears to have distanced itself from the collective stand and had submitted a number of proposed amendments to the ministry on its own.

‘Representing who?’

In dismissing the outcome of the one-day session as lopsided and favouring the opposition, Lim said: "I know who attended the consultation. I got a report from my officer.

"Was that a public consultation? It’s a one-way consultation. Malaysia has 25 million people, so are you telling me that 250 represent all of them?

"Even with consultation, they haven’t given any reasons for rejecting the bills. To just say ‘we don’t like privatisation and thus reject the bills’ makes no sense."
He insisted that initial feedback was obtained from CAWP before drafting the laws and that privatisation plans were switched to corporatisation based on that.

"So we told the states to corporatise the water departments by owning shares in the new entities.

"But I ask the coalition this. If a state entity fails to perform and the minister is forced to intervene as provided under the new law, who should he give it to next?

"Shouldn’t we give to a company that is able and can afford to operate it?"

Contacted for immediate comments, Barisan Nasional Back Benchers Club chairperson Shahrir Abdul Samad said the MPs were generally happy with the consultation process.

"This (extensive consultation) has never been done, not this way. It appears to have been very thorough where all parties would have had their say.

"At the same time, MPs also raised two very important issues pertaining to consumer protection and management of water sources and resources."

Although the MPs acknowledged that the management of water and resources comes under state purview, he said there were still concerns.

"We know that this is only one side of the story. We hope there will come a time when the management of water sources such as catchment areas and rivers will be handled accordingly," he said.

"As an immediate suggestion, the MPs want enough power vested in the two Bills to enable investments in new infrastructure and an enhanced enforcement to ensure quality, supply and pricing of water."

The impending nationwide privatisation of water services management per state has raised concerns over the access and affordability of water to the masses.

Many argue that water is a basic right to life and should not be ‘commodified’.

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