Selangor eateries hit as taps go dry

A Starbucks outlet in the middle-class suburb of Subang Jaya has stopped serving coffee - whether hot or ice-blended - on dry-tap days, offering only a limited menu of bottled juice and cakes.

Car washes are closing early, hardware stores are running out of 30-litre water containers and patrons are shunning some eateries for fear that no water supply equals dirty food.

Already frustrated with five weeks of water-rationing so far, businesses and households in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya are now bracing themselves for another round until the end of this month. The authorities say another 620,237 households will be affected, making it a total of 6.7 million people affected so far.

In terms of numbers, that is worse than the last major water crisis in 1998, which affected 3.2 million people in greater Kuala Lumpur. But in terms of the length of rationing, it is not the worst yet as rationing stretched for five months in 1998.

Despite recent rains, the water authorities said not enough was falling in major catchment areas. But consumers, faced with the incongruity of recent heavy rain and yet no improvement in their water supply, say water companies need to do a better job as the capital's population grows.

"Malaysia does not face drought issues and so, it is easy to store water if the right measures are in place," said Mr S. Piarapakaran, president of the Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation.

Starbucks store manager Rabitul Sazmiera 24, said daily takings at her outlet in Subang Jaya, which is popular with college students, has fallen from RM6,000 (S$2,300) to between RM2,000 and RM3,000. "How do I catch up on sales this month if the water-rationing continues?" she told The Straits Times in an interview recently.

The water-rationing exercise, where two days of regular supply alternate with two days of dry taps, started in parts of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor last month, after water at several dams fell to near critical levels after a prolonged dry spell.

Yesterday, the water level at the Sungai Selangor dam, which serves over 60 per cent of Klang Valley residents, was at 36 per cent - 30 per cent is considered critical. The Meteorological Department said it would continue cloud-seeding - spraying chemicals into clouds to induce rain - until dam levels go up again. But climate experts have already warned that another prolonged dry season between June and October could bring more water cuts.

The population of greater Kuala Lumpur, known as the Klang Valley, has grown to 7.2 million from 5.4 million in 2007. To cope, the federal government is building a new treatment plant known as Langat 2, which will be ready by 2017.

But over the years, development has disrupted the flow of water into catchment areas and caused pollution in the existing water treatment plants, causing periodic shortages.

Mr Piarapakaran said short-term measures such as installing devices that prevent ammonia-poisoning in water treatment plants and directing water flow from rivers to catchment areas during rainy season can help address water issues.

Meanwhile, city dwellers are trying to make do.

Mr Sim Hock Chai, 61, a noodle seller in Subang Jaya, is storing water in pails to wash plates and cook. He said many customers are staying away because they worry the bowls are not clean.

"Business has been so bad that I have been pouring away unfinished soup which I cooked for six hours daily," he said recently. "But if I don't open my stall, I have no earnings at all."

This article was published on April 5 in The Straits Times.

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