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Snorkelling, diving, and swimming at the beach are favourite activities in the country's stunning island resorts but unbeknownst to many, holidaymakers may be paddling in human excrement.
This is because for decades, lack of proper facilities to treat sewage on island resorts mean untreated wastewater are channelled directly into the sea, Malaysiakini’s investigation into the matter on the Perhentian and Redang islands found.
The practice, although unsavoury, is largely in compliance with the Department of Environment’s (DOE) requirements.
Checks found small resort owners generally use septic tanks, of which contents are cleared of sludge and effluents before channeled into the ocean, in compliance with the Environmental Quality Act 1974.
This is also the case for larger resorts that use their own small sewage treatment systems or individual septic tanks.
However, according to regulations, these tanks must first be registered and approved by the National Water Services Commission.
Malaysiakini’s investigations found that not all resorts obtained the required approval, indicating that wastewater channeled into the sea may not comply with the standards set by the Act.
The issue is compounded by the treatment of wastewater from domestic users, known as sullage. It is learnt that sullage is allowed to flow directly into the sea or into ponds and inland streams, ultimately polluting the sea.
Indah Water Konsortium director of operations for Terengganu and Kelantan Edlyn Surya Abu Bakar said this is because the volume of sullage is greater than effluents and the practice of releasing it into drainage systems means it will find its way to water near the beach.
She said the correct practice is to use a marine outflow that directs the water more than a kilometre away from the beach to be released into the open sea.
However, this is not used on some islands. Even resorts with well-functioning small sewage treatment systems frequently discharge treated water directly into waters near crowded beaches, thus breaching Environmental Quality Act regulations, checks have found.
When resorts allow sewage, sullage, and sludge to spew into the sea, this causes an increase in nutrient content and other pollutants in the waters. This, in turn, encourages algae bloom and results in a depletion of live coral cover (LCC), studies have found.
The LCC is a measure of the proportion of reef surface covered by live stony coral instead of sponges, algae, or other organisms, and is considered the most efficient indicator of coral reef health.
In the 2000s, the waters of Terengganu used to boast an LCC in the 50 percent range, according to a study by Reef Check, an NGO that receives an annual grant from the Department of Marine Parks (DMPM) to assess the health of reefs in Malaysia.