“Sanusi, do you understand the constitution?”

KEDAH Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor said that the proposal to set up a regional water authority in the Ulu Muda water catchment area of Sungai Muda was an affront to the sovereignty of the state.

The proposal came from the Penang state Government to address the water needs in the northern states of Perlis, Kedah and Penang.

Kedah draws about 96% of water from this area, Penang about 80% and Perlis 70%. In terms of actual volume, Kedah obtains 800 mil litres and Penang about 1,100 mil litres per day.

Sanusi also said that Penang cannot expect Kedah to make “sacrifices” when the former has consistently refused to pay for the water supply from Sungai Muda. He added that those who are not willing to make sacrifices should not expect Kedah to do so.

According to him, Kedah has not resorted to logging in the Ulu Muda area to protect the water catchment area – and in doing so, the state has lost considerable revenue. A portion of that revenue could be offset by contributions from Penang, he argued.

Sanusi further reminded that the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) clearly spelled out the rights of the states over land, natural resources, forests and others.

Anyone familiar with Kedah will acknowledge that logging is taking place in the water catchment area but not on the scale envisaged by Sanusi.

The idea of a regional water authority to conserve, manage and regulate water supply in the Ulu Muda water catchment area might not be an affront to the rights of Kedah or its sovereignty. Such a proposal might be opposed to state rights, however.

It is perfectly understandable why Sanusi is repeating his argument about the need for Penang to contribute RM100 mil per year to Kedah to compensate for water drawn from Sungai Muda.

Sungai Muda (Photo credit: The Star)

However, Sanusi refuses to acknowledge the fact that Penang draws water from its side of the river; in other words, Penang enjoys universally acknowledged riparian rights.

Natural and inalienable right to water use

In fact, long before Malaya was colonised and state boundaries demarcated, there was a seamless flow of water from the Sungai Muda. The formation of states did not usurp the natural and inalienable rights of the use of water from the river. 

Long before the formation of Malaysia in 1963, states’ rights were enshrined in the Federal Constitution. As such, reference by Sanusi to MA63 might not be appropriate. He should instead refer to the constitution of the country.

In actual fact, states in Malaysia like Kedah do not have sovereignty as such. Sovereignty refers to the nation and not to the states.

Sanusi’s lack of understanding of the constitution and separation of powers between the Federal Government and states is confusing or alarming, to say the least. This is not something expected from the head of the Kedah state Government.

The idea of a regional authority is not something new or unique. Countries like India, Australia and many others have come out with such an idea to conserve and distribute water. The Murray-Darling Basin in Australia is one example and there are others.

The increased demand for water across states makes it imperative for the formation of regional or intra-state authorities. Besides that, states are finding it more and more difficult to manage water resources on their own.

This is the reason why regional authorities are expected to play a meaningful role in the future. 

I don’t see how a regional water authority, with the aim to conserve, regulate and supply water to three states, can be an affront to the rights of Kedah. 

Yes, water is drawn from the water catchment area of Ulu Muda located in Kedah, but Kedah cannot say that water drawn belongs exclusively to it. What about the seamless flow of water to other parts long before the states were created?

The Ulu Muda Forest Reserve (Photo credit: JungleWalla)

It is not that Penang does not want to contribute to the preservation and protection of the Ulu Muda water catchment area.

Although Penang is aware of the blackmail and threats from the Kedah Government under Sanusi on not paying compensation, Penang, by taking a strategic and long-term view, wants the Federal Government, especially the Environment and Water Ministry to undertake a study for the eventual establishment of a regional water authority.

What’s the point in having a federal water ministry?

It is within the powers of the Federal Government to intervene in matters of conflict between the states. What is the purpose of having a federal water ministry that takes no initiative in resolving water problems between the states?

Water is a prime strategic matter that should not be left to the whims and fancies of mercurial state leaders like Sanusi.

It is not just Kedah but also Perak; the proposal of Penang to draw water from Sungai Perak in Perak has hit a stone wall.

Perak might be concerned about its own water needs, but what then is the point of having a federal water ministry under its minister Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, who has no imagination whatsoever except to regurgitate the old and worn-out arguments of Sanusi?

Party ties seem to take precedence over the future of water supply to the northern states.

It is not that Penang state has no moral obligation but certainly not under constant threats and blackmail.

A trajectory toward a regional water authority in the name of Ulu Muda River Basin Authority (UMRBA) might get the moral as well as financial support of the Penang Government – but not with the threats and blackmail of the PAS Government in Kedah. – Sept 10, 2022


Prof Ramasamy Palanisamy is the state assemblyperson for Perai. He is also deputy chief minister II of Penang. 

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia. 

Main photo credit: Bernama

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