What are the advantages of managing wastewater systems at a national versus a local level?

KADIR: There are a lot of advantages. From a national perspective, we cover a wide area. Holistically, we cover all the areas, and this allows us to have control over the system. In that manner, everyone will enjoy the standard system created for the whole nation. That is the best system for the moment for Malaysia.

What percentage of Malaysia’s wastewater is being treated? What levels of treatment are being achieved?

KADIR: We have two levels of treatment. We have Standard A and Standard B. We look at the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), which for Standard A is 2030mg/L. If you look at Standard B, it is 5100mg/L. If you look at the way sewage is being managed, anything that is built upstream is Standard A, and anything that is downstream is Standard B. This is being measured by the Department of the Environment. We have another regulator, the Commissioner for Sewage, to make sure we do not pollute the water.

What future plans does Indah Water have for sewage treatment?

KADIR: The sewage sector was privatized in 1994. The government’s vision was to have 85% of the population connected to a proper sewage plant in the urban areas. The remaining 15% would use septic tanks. In the rural areas, the vision was to have 70% using septic tanks and 30% non-standard. This is the vision of the government. In the urban areas, we still have some privately owned plants. In the future we are looking to have a regional plant that will decommission all the developer’s smaller plants.

What is the financial model for wastewater treatment in Malaysia?

KADIR: In Malaysia, we have only two models. One of them is funded by the government. These are plants with more than 50,000 Population Equivalent (PE). We have one in Kuala Lumpur in Pantai, which have a maximum capacity of 1.2m people, as well as one in Penang. We have small pockets of plants that are mushrooming all over the country. These treatment plants are regarded as temporary plants. When the government has funding to build a regional plant, all of the small plants will be decommissioned. This will make for a more centralized system that will be far away from residential areas, with the proper buffer zones. This is the vision of the government.

What level of investment is still required for wastewater infrastructure in Malaysia?

KADIR: Over the next 30 years, we have estimated that we need about RM52bn ($17bn) of investment. This comprises of a number of things. First, we need to build regional plants. The other is the rehabilitation of sewer lines.

Customer non-payment for wastewater services is a major issue in Malaysia. What are the underlying reasons behind people’s unwillingness to pay for wastewater treatment services?

KADIR: We have been penalized because of our efficiency. People take it for granted, and they have become too complacent. They have enjoyed the comfort we provide with no difficulty. I tell people the toilet is the most commonly used room in the house. You will use it more than you visit your church, mosque, or temple. People use our service everyday, but they only think of it when it does not work. Through all our years of operation, nobody has been forced out of their homes because their toilets are not functioning. We have been penalized for being too efficient. The sewage sector is similar to the medical sector. No one wants to see a doctor unless they are sick. It is best to not see us. It means we are doing our jobs. People see that everything is in order, and they do not feel the need to pay.

What is Indah water doing to overcome this issue and raise awareness?

KADIR: We work with various sectors, including the Ministry and the regulators, to promote, as well as look at areas of non-payment, especially for desludging. We have also visited schools, exhibition centers, and other functions. We believe that if we can convince the government to include a syllabus of environment into the preschool, it will create public knowledge of the situation. Educating the future generation of students will help to maintain the environment. Sewage is a public health and environmental concern. The benefits that everyone will enjoy from a clean system will help the economy tremendously, especially in the tourism sector. People will live happily. This applies to any country. Proper sewage systems, and no water-borne diseases, will attract tourists. From a branding perspective, we want to turn wastewater into a resource. Looking into the future, we are trying to promote awareness.

In what ways can the wastewater system become a green, self-sustaining industry?

KADIR: The resource that comes from the wastewater plant is comprised of three things: liquid, solid, and gas. We promote the idea to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Water can be used for irrigation. This indirectly increases the amount of water available for human consumption. Doing this to conserve water will be beneficial. The other aspect is the sludge. We are promoting this as a non-chemical fertilizer, because humans do not produce metals. Sludge is easily treatable. Early last year we signed a MOA with a local authority to use our liquid and solids for landscaping. This has worked very well. The only problem is the plants must be trimmed more often because they grow very quickly. The last resource is gas, which is about 70% methane. This can be converted into energy. Ideally, this should be used to run our own plant, or to sell to the community. This helps in becoming a self-sustainable industry. All of these things will work with the support from both sides. We need funding for R&D to move forward. We have collaborated with local universities and outside parties that are willing to work with us to turn waste into a resource. This also raises public awareness and changes peoples’ mindsets. One day there will be no sewage plants in Malaysia. It will be one large green resource center. The result of R&D is not seen overnight. You cannot invest today and get returns tomorrow. There are many unstudied areas, such as microbes. We are studying and processing things internally. We are looking at how to reduce the sludge. We are also looking to make use of enzymes. All of this takes time. We are also doing research on things beyond sewage that can create energy. We are looking at micro turbines, which can generate energy and reduce our energy costs. All in all, we are looking to reduce the cost of sewage, and ways we can produce energy. Going forward, we are looking at ways to convert sludge into fertilizer. We are also looking at ways to convert sludge into coal. This is still in the R&D stage. It may not be 100% coal, but it can be mixed up with other ingredients, and help reduce costs. Sludge can also be used to make bricks and other things. We are looking to recycle it, but we must be prudent to make sure we maintain a return on our investment.