Paintings of various flora and fauna, green plants in each corner of his office and an always-busy team who work hard to match the same strict discipline as their Minister, are all just glimpses into the life of this highly competent and no-nonsense leader. As a man who realises how time-sensitive his environmental sustainability projects are, Dr Xavier is meticulous about the goals he wants to achieve. Through him, we learn of the most crucial problems affecting Malaysia’s water and natural resources, and each careful strategy the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources (KATS) will take to achieve its long-term goal of sustainability.
As a former member of the Selangor State government, Dr Xavier is intimately familiar with the problem of unstable water supply in the Klang Valley and the greater Selangor area. The cause of this decade-long crisis can be traced back to 2008 when the Water Services Industry Act (WISA) 2006 was gazetted, which aims to consolidate all water infrastructure under the Federal government. Under WISA, the Federal government is to take over the water assets of all the states by buying over their water concessionaires and taking control of water infrastructure such as water plants and pipelines.
In Selangor however, the takeover of Syarikat Pengeluar Air Selangor Holdings (SPLASH) ran into complications owing to disputes between the then Federal government, which was led by the Barisan Nasional, and the Pakatan Harapan led Selangor State government. With Pakatan Harapan assuming the Federal government after the May 2018 General Elections, things have gone far more smoothly between the two administrations.
Of course, it also helps that Dr Xavier appreciated the urgent need to settle this problem. He tells us, “The minute I took office, I asked for an extension of one month to conclude this agreement. We are 80% complete on the sale of SPLASH and are likely to conclude thewhole takeover by 10 August.” Dr Xavier says that this restructuring process has resulted in positive responses from the Selangor government and water concessionaires, and spells good news for water crisis-plagued Klang Valley residents.
Moving forward, the Minister is determined to lead the way for Malaysia to utilise its water resources, particularly rainwater, in more innovative ways. A fervent advocate of merging businesses with sustainability, Dr Xavier’s next plan is to encourage rainwater to be utilised at the very beginning of the construction process.
“I have given instructions to the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) to work very closely with one of the major developers in Malaysia who are in the midst of developing two or three thousand acres of land into residential and commercial areas. DID will consolidate the latest rainwater technology into construction, and developers only have the rights to go ahead as long as they include green tech like this into the process itself.”
Beyond his various solutions to the problem, Dr Xavier understands that there is a grassroots change that must happen for any of his sustainability measures to be carried out more effectively. “You have to do the best you can with what you have, and what we have is a very different mind-set when it comes to conservation.” Presently we have a very high usage of water per individual and the only way we can change that is by raising awareness and education on the issue.
Dr Xavier has already included this in his plan to address this and will enlist the help of the National Water Services Commission (SPAN). As such, the regulatory body will be in charge of various educational processes to teach the people of water being a limited resource that we must respect and utilise more efficiently.
While on the subject of water security and sustainability, our conversation turned to the issue of bauxite mining and the moratorium on it which was imposed in 2016 after excessive mining caused rivers in Pahang to be polluted. The moratorium was supposed to have ended on 30 June this year, however upon taking office in July, Dr Xavier decided to extend it for another six months and has even started a new investigation into the matter,
He revealed that presently there are around 500,000 tonnes of bauxite stockpiled in the ports of Kuantan and Kemaman, under covered sheds so there is no chance of polluting the rivers and roads nearby. At the same time, there is also a huge stockpile of nearly 1 million tonnes of bauxite building up in the open air on the borders of Kuantan close to thenearby FELDA settlement.
Recognising the urgency to get rid of this bauxite surplus before any further mining, Dr Xavier is making it a priority determined to sit down with all stakeholders
involved to come up with a solution. Then, after the stockpile has been appropriately handled, to formulate a new set of the rules for the mining industry. “The problem with the way Malaysia is used to handling booming industries is that resources are often taken advantage of and rule enforcement is heavily lacking. KATS is going to do this properly now without hurting the environment anymore,” he emphasised.
Beyond water and mineral resources, the Minister is also determined to safeguard our forests, with one major focus being the conservation of forests in Sabah and Sarawak. Noting that the two East Malaysian states have the largest tropical rainforests in the world outside of Brazil, Dr Xavier noted that “It is very important that the peninsular works together with Sabah and Sarawak as one nation to better ensure forest sustainability.”
This will soon hopefully be resolved by the Minister’s latest plan: forest inventory, which is a strategy he is pioneering in the Ministry. Dr Xavier is keen to analyse how we can keep better track of how much we utilise our forests. By budgeting a certain amount of funds for Sabah and Sarawak forest authorities to start an inventory, they will know how much is being used for logging purposes and how much is for development, giving them a better check-and-balance system to prevent excessive logging and illegal practises in the more crucial areas of the forest.
With timber products being a huge export from these states, the ministry is now in the process of placing certificates on all the logs brought out of the forest. There is also a push to be better from international markets like the EU who are concerned with buying from illicit loggers that overexploit natural resources. Thus, the plan to introduce certificates of authenticity as proof of whether timber is coming from a sustainable management or illegal loggers. These products can only be turned into furniture if they are legal and by creating a better way to track where their products come from, the government is ensuring there will be no market for illegal products.
But there are more to the forests than just their trees, and Dr Xavier is very excited for his latest fauna conservation programs. With only 250-300 Malayan tigers left in the country and animals like tapirs unique mostly to countries like Malaysia in Southeast Asia, there is an urgency in the Minister’s voice as he describes their latest proposals. KATS is developing various conservation centres that focus on Malaysia’s endangered animals like orang utans, Malayan tigers (Sungkai, Perak) and tapirs (Tampin, Negeri Sembilan). They are also in the process of resettling elephants that have become an obstruction for plantations and villages, to ensure they have a better quality of living back in their own habitats.
“If one does not have the heart for environmental issues, one should not be here.” – Dr Xavier Jayakumar, Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources
Dr Xavier is firm in his beliefs that we must change our ways, and does not put up with non-essential issues outside of the environment. But within all his meticulousness and long-term plans for the future, amid the various Plan Cs and Plan Ds the has for future sustainability, there is a burning passion to do good things for the environment and his country. The heart for all of these things comes straight from the minister himself, and his dedicated team. Dr Xavier understands we have a long way to go and a lot to change in our attitudes, but he is steadfast in introducing and maintaining the ideas that could really shape the way we think of and treat Mother Nature in the future.