KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Teeming with food waste, clogged with grease and filled with water the colour of curry, drains surrounding coffeeshops and food stalls in most areas in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor can be a nauseating sight.
This filth then flows into rivers and pollutes the water.
Studies on the water quality under the River of Life project identified food waste as the main pollutant in eight rivers flowing through Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.
Sungai Keroh recorded a BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) count of 565.39kg per day.
This means more than 500kg of oxygen and bacteria are needed to dilute just this one aspect of pollution on a daily basis.
Kepong Hawkers and Petty Traders Association vice-chairman Ng Yow Loon said the problem stemmed from irresponsibility.
"There is a government ruling that restaurants must have rubbish and grease traps installed so the food waste does not directly go into the drains and end up clogging the pipes. But many do not comply.
"The main problem is with the stall owners in coffeeshops who build sinks with pipes that run directly into the drains.
"The coffeeshop owner who is renting out the space to them must include the requirement of installing grease and rubbish traps in each rental contract.
"Either that or install a communal trap to accommodate the tenants," added Ng.
Coffeeshop and food stall owners claimed they flush the drains with water after business hours daily, but the grey gunk and fish scales stuck to drain walls, that have algae, shows otherwise.
Those are stories Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) Health and Environment Department director Dr Hayati Abdullah does not buy.
Together with a team of health inspectors, she oversees 6,269 restaurants, one third of which are in complexes.
The department's list of no-nos are clear. No direct discharge of water from pipes into drains. No washing plates or preparing food in back lanes. Only restaurants with fat, oil and grease (FOG) traps will be issued with licences. This was implemented in 2005.
The biggest challenge was dealing with the mentality of the public.
In 2011, the department realised that the compulsory grease trap rule was not working.
A quick check with officers revealed that some operators had neglected to clean and maintain the traps, resulting in clogged drains.
As a shortcut measure, restaurant owners had disconnected the pipes leading to the filtering machines.
When the department realised this, it made it compulsory for owners to provide copies of maintenance contracts with DBKL-registered contractors.
This was implemented in 2012, but the problem remains unsolved.
Solution to the problem
Shutting down eateries for about two weeks was the most effective way to garner compliance, said Dr Hayati.
In her experience, issuing compounds was not effective because the maximum amount was only RM2,000 (S$673), which they could easily make back.
And after paying the fine, they would most likely go back to their old habits.
"Many of the owners will clean up on the day itself. The next morning they are at our office waiting for our inspectors already," said Dr Hayati.
Gerakan Federal Territory Acting Youth Chief and Kepong parliamentary coordinator Ong Siang Liang urged authorities to take action instead of practising the soft approach.
"Perpetrators who do not comply after receiving notices must be shut down. Ignorance should no longer be an issue because education on water quality preservation had started as far back as 10 years ago," he said.
Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia president Piarapakaran Subramaniam attributed dumping wastes into drains to infrastructure which had yet to catch up with the demands of a growing population.
"Wastewater from kitchens and bathrooms have only one destination - the drain.
"This has resulted in the habitual practice of coffeeshop and food stall operators, who think nothing of flushing leftover broth and gravy down the ditch.
"There are only two places where the swill will end up - either the river or the sea," he said, calling for a change in attitude of the operators.
In the face of a looming long-term water crisis brought about by weather change, population growth and development, he reiterated that water was a precious source that had to be preserved.
"There is a need to revise the wastewater discharge standard and for heftier penalties.
"Slapping the perpetrators with small fines is not enough. They should be made to pay for the impact on the population as well. If it means shutting them down, so be it," he said.
Balakong assemblyman Eddie Ng said there was a need to educate business owners who d not see profit in practising environment-friendly habits.
At a dialogue with shopowners in Taman Megah, Cheras in Selangor, Mr Ng confirmed that two coffeeshops in the area - Fu Hai and Sau Seng - had agreed to install grease traps.
However, there was another problem. Some shopowners had covered up drains to create more parking space.
"I have given them two weeks to make openings so that the contractors can clean up drains. If not, I'm going to complain to the local council," said Mr Ng.
Although he had confirmed later that the owners had replied and promised to cooperate, Mr Ng did not believe that he would see clean water in the drains any time soon.
In Kuala Lumpur, cleaning of public areas is the responsibility of Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp Malaysia) as stated in the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 (Act 672).
The local authorities no longer have jurisdiction over the collection and disposal of garbage, as well as cleaning of public roads, areas, toilets and drains.
Alam Flora Sdn Bhd, an environmental management company, is now tasked with cleaning public drains in Kuala Lumpur.
In sharing her point of view on this issue, SWCorp Malaysia Federal Territories director Hazilah Gumri said local authorities must still play their part to enforce the rules.
"If the food outlets do not abide by the rules, their licences can be withdrawn. This is because operators of food outlets must ensure food wastes are not channelled into drains.
"It is also time to phase out roadside stalls in order to reduce problems like direct discharge of waste into public drains," said Ms Hazilah.
Cost is an issue
At the Taman Seri Sentosa Market and Hawker Centre, one of the 33 food courts run by DBKL, Health and Environment Department assistant officer Fauzi Phang said the installation of a communal FOG system cost RM400,000 including drainage and piping works.
DBKL maintained 98 communal grease traps and the cost of maintenance was RM5 million for a two-year contract.
He said the waste was sent to a recycling centre that exported it to Hong Kong to be recycled into biodiesel, candles and cosmetics products.
For a stall owner, a fibre glass model with a capacity of 80 litres would cost RM450 only.
"It is much cheaper to handle the waste at source instead of dealing with it when it reaches the river. By then, it can cost the taxpayers' hundreds of millions," said Mr Fauzi.