Lake needs to be taken care of

Posted on December 12, 2010. Filed under: Pollution |

-The Star-

Escherichia coli, popularly known as E.coli, is undoubtedly the organism of the week, no thanks to its mention in the same breath with Tasik Kenyir.

EARLIER this week, the Terengganu state exco member for tourism Datuk Abdul Rahin Mohd Said was reported in two Malay dailies as saying that an ongoing research by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) revealed that the level of E. coli in the lake had been rising, and that it was at a worrying level (Rahin denied the media reports a day later).

Whatever the case, the hoohah over E. coli, also known as faecal coliform, arose from a water sampling study that was meant to assess the health of Tasik Kenyir for aquaculture, which has been ongoing for more than 10 years.

Lead researcher Prof Dr Faziah Sharom of UMT’s Institute of Tropical Aquaculture (she is also the director) told the media that her study, due to be completed next month, looked at the effect of E. coli levels on aquaculture (there are lots of caged fish breeding in Kenyir) and not on humans.

State jewel: Besides attracting tourists to its beautiful surroundings (top), Tasik Kenyir is also used for caged fish breeding (below).

In 2006, some 2,800ha of the 37,000ha man-made lake were set aside for fish breeding using the cage method. There were three fish breeders operating on a commercial scale at that point, and Tasik Kenyir is the mainstay of Terengganu’s freshwater fish production, contributing the bulk of its 10,000-tonne-a-year output.

“Our preliminary survey indicates that the E. coli levels in the water do have a negative effect on the fish population, and we know that the bacteria come from sewage,” she said. She did not reveal the actual readings.

The Interim Water Quality Standards for Malaysia (INWQS) is applicable to freshwater bodies like lakes, streams and rivers. INWQS has five classes, from I to V, with Class I being the best and Class V being the worst. A certain amount of faecal coliform can be expected in the most pristine stream, and as such, Class I allows for up to 10 counts of faecal coliform per 100ml of water sample drawn.

For the cultivation of sensitive aquatic species, the water should not be worse than Class IIA (maximum of 100 counts of faecal coliform per 100ml). When primary contact with water is involved (swimming, waterskiing or wakeboarding), the water should not be worse than Class IIB (limits faecal coliform to 400 counts per 100ml).

The United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends a limit of 235 per 100ml for recreational waters.

However, when looking at the bigger picture, it seems that E. coli’s name is worse than its bite. Save for one or two strains, which can wreak havoc in our gastro-intestinal system, E. coli by itself is generally quite harmless.

But because it is present in high numbers in the gastro-intestinal tracts of vertebrate animals (including humans), it serves as a good indicator of the severity of faecal pollution in any water body.

Or put in another way, if lots of E. coli are found in a pond, chances are high that there is a lot of faecal contamination there.

Faecal contamination is not to be taken lightly as human faeces carry pathogens such as enteroviruses (including the Coxsackie virus), noroviruses, hepatitis viruses, Shigella spp. and Salmonella spp.

Tourist attraction: A boathouse taking guests around Tasik Kenyir in Hulu Terengganu.

Whatever the actual E. coli levels are, Rahin said UMT’s report of the lake being contaminated was hardly surprising as boathouses without a proper sewerage system had been allowed to operate there for the past 10 years.

Total absence of a sewerage system would be a more appropriate description, as nearly all of them discharge waste from the toilets directly into the lake. There are currently 30 to 40 of such boathouses, each capable of carrying 10 to 15 passengers. Typically, these boats will anchor in good fishing spots for at least two nights.

Besides the boathouses, there are a few land-based resorts around Tasik Kenyir. Each is believed to operate its own private sewage treatment plants (Indah Water Konsortium Sdn Bhd confirms it does not have any customers in the Tasik Kenyir area).

Even in this case, the current Malaysian standard for treated effluent discharges from sewage treatment plants (STPs) does not prescribe any parameters for faecal coliform (it does set limits for biological oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, oil and grease, total suspended solids, as well as ammoniacal nitrogen).

“Given this, no STP owner, whether IWK or private operators, is legally required to incorporate disinfection measures (eg. clorination or ultraviolet treatment) before discharging the final treated effluent into the lake, river or sea,” said Assoc Prof Dr Maketab Mohamed, a water quality specialist from the Chemical Engineering Department of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Faculty of Chemical Engineering.

In an e-mail reply, the Kenyir Lake Resort & Spa, arguably the largest resort in the area, declined to comment on the E. coli issue beyond saying that “we believe our house is in order”.

Sustaining the environment

The director of Terengganu’s Department of Environment could not be contacted for comments on the overall state of sewerage infrastructure in the state. However, those familiar with the tourism trade revealed that it had taken a long time for sewerage infrastructure in two of the state’s crown jewels, Pulau Redang and Pulau Perhentian, to move in the right direction.

“I estimate that it is only recently that about 80% of Redang’s resorts, mostly around the Pasir Panjang area, are connected to some form of sewerage treatment facility. As for Perhentian, it still has a long way to go,” said Alex Lee, managing director of Ping Anchorage Sdn Bhd, an award-winning tour operator which specialises in Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast attractions.

Lee said most of the smaller operators on the resort islands needed a lot of guidance and push from the Government as they either lacked knowledge, motivation, or funds to set up proper sewerage infrastructure. “Getting them to think green and sustainable is a huge challenge in the next few years,” said Lee, who also highlighted that the islands’ coral reefs were suffering from severe degradation as well.

“Kenyir will continue to see a rise in visitors given the many developments planned for the area, like turning it into a duty-free zone. All these are good, but we should get our fundamentals right first, like a proper waste and sewage disposal system, otherwise the developments will not be sustainable in the long run.”

To its credit, the state government is doing something about the problem, even if the initial attempt seems rather crude.

“Based on our survey, we will install a wastewater capture system without charge to the existing 37 boathouses,” Rahin said on Monday at the launch of the Kenyir Cup 2010 fishing competition at Pengkalan Gawi.

He said the state had allocated RM103,000 for that purpose, or an average of RM2,800 per boathouse, though it remains unclear whether these are actually on board septic tanks (which means there will still be some discharge of treated or partially treated effluent into the lake) or wastewater holding tanks, which means that there will be absolutely no discharge allowed into the lake (all wastewater has to be pumped ashore for treatment).

If Tasik Kenyir is in California (where it will most likely be gazetted as a zero-discharge zone), all boats and boathouses will be required to store sewage on board, and to dump these only at designated pumpouts located at various points (see www.dbw.ca.gov/Environmental/pumpinfo/Default.aspx).

At the same function, Rahin said 18 boathouses (those used for Kenyir Cup 2010) were now equipped with “septic tanks” while 19 others were awaiting their turn to be fitted with the tanks, each with a 200-litre capacity.

A boathouse operator, while welcoming the move, said the capacity of the tank could turn out to be “impractical” as it could only hold half-a-day’s worth of wastewater. On a per capita basis, Malaysians easily consume more than 200 litres of water per day.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said his ministry planned to take water samples to check the levels before deciding on the next course of action.

“It is common for E. coli to be present in lakes like Kenyir but the levels are usually low,” he said.

Regardless of the finding, Kenyir faces more threats than just untreated sewage discharges. Simon Lum, from Melbourne, Australia, who recently spent a long weekend with a few friends on a houseboat, was disturbed enough to write to The Star: “On that weekend, there were no less than 14 houseboats with an average of 10 people on board, all berthed around the Sungai Cacing area. Is there a limit to how many people can visit Kenyir at any one time? My boatman told me there could be as many as 18 to 20 boathouses at one time.

“Over-fishing is very evident. There is no limit to the size (or) number or species of fish that are landed. Traps were being laid, too. Even our boatman brought in lots of baung, large and small, from a trap that he had laid. Our group hooked a variety of fish, including the beautiful belida and kelisa. We released the kelisa, which we believe to be an endangered species, though the belida died from the fierce struggle it put up.

“The boathouses have no proper sanitation. Everything is flushed into the lake. Food leftovers are tossed into the water, and water is drawn from the lake for cooking and washing! The park rangers were supposed to check for live fish being taken out but as we berthed the boat at the station on our way out, an official from atop the hill waved us through. I am told that the Government is proposing to turn Tasik Kenyir into a duty-free zone. I fail to see the logic of it as I believe Tasik Kenyir should be protected from further destruction. I hope to visit Kenyir again in five years and pray that it will thrive both as a sanctuary for local freshwater fish and a tourist destination.”

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