PETALING JAYA - Mushrooming farms around the Terla River are threatening the water quality of the Terla River, a major source of water for Cameron Highlands.
An activist claims that the number of legal and illegal farms operating around the Terla River watershed has more than tripled since 2008.
"These farms ... are a major threat to the quality of the water in the form of both total suspended solids as well as total coliform (including faecal) bacteria due to human activity and fertilisers derived from manure like chicken dung," said Malaysian Nature Society's (MNS) immediate past president Dr Maketab Mohamed.
He added that at last count there were 90 farms around the Terla River watershed, which supplies potable water to 80 per cent of Cameron Highlands.
"The farms are accessible through the road leading to the Terla River water treatment plant," he said, adding that there were only 20 farms - both legal and illegal - when the area was surveyed in 2008.
"Who is giving them permission to set up farms there, and if they are illegal, why is nobody taking action? Clearly, the authorities lack the will to do so," he said.
"Last year, they cracked down on illegal immigrants. But when it comes to the safety of our water, they are not doing anything," said Maketab, who added that cattle rearing along the banks of Terla River also leach nutrients like nitrate and phosphate into the river.
The water supply situation in Cameron Highlands is already in a state of crisis, according to a source in Putrajaya.
Speaking to The Star on condition of anonymity, she said authorities had to act quickly as even treated water in Brinchang is tainted with faecal coliform, other than with pesticide residues.
In a study last year by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, treated water in Brinchang was found to be contaminated with pesticides, most of them banned in the country.
A joint water quality study in 2008 by MNS and the Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands, an NGO from the highlands, found traces of faecal coliform in some tap water samples.
Maketab, a professor of water quality and water quality modelling at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, added that the 2008 study found the total coliform count of raw water there "too numerous to count".
Bacterial levels in water are measured by colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml, and back then, some treated water samples had up to 250 CFUs per 100ml of total coliform, when it should be zero, as prescribed by Malaysian drinking water standards.
In a statement, Natural Resource and Environment Minister Datuk Seri G. Palanivel promised to work with other government agencies and universities to address the issue.
He said it would do its best to "overcome this threat to health and environment".
"The issue of pesticide residue in rivers and drinking water is a grave concern. It may be necessary for Malaysia to seek organic means of controlling pests in the vegetable, fruit and flower industry.
"The long-term benefits of such a move will control and eventually bring an end to the potentially hazardous effects of dangerous chemicals," he said.
He also called for consumer education, so that farmers would better understand the far-reaching consequences of using such chemicals, and their cumulative effects on the environment.