Indah Water Konsortium and the path to sustainability and long-term value

Children play in waterways protected by IWK sewerage services © IWK

Malaysia’s national sewerage company, Indah Water Konsortium, won the IWA Professional Development Award 2021, in recognition of an important aspect of utility management. Joseph Cheong and Lina Ong highlight its wider progress and achievements.

As the national sewerage company, Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) Sdn. Bhd. is entrusted with developing and maintaining a modern and efficient sewerage system for all Malaysians. It provides sewerage services to a connected population equivalent (cPE) of close to 27 million. IWK does this by operating and maintaining a total of 7111 public sewage treatment plants (STP), 1301 network pump stations, and 20,397km of sewer lines, making it one of the largest sewerage services operators in this region of the world. With 27 years of experience under its belt, IWK has proven its capability in managing the sewerage system in the country efficiently.

Over the years, IWK’s role has expanded and evolved to extend beyond serving Malaysians as a utility provider on sewerage services. The technological advancement and innovation of sewage treatment systems have resulted in the production of by-products from STPs – treated effluent, biosolid and biogas – representing resource recovery products that could generate new business streams. IWK is progressing from being an ordinary sewerage services provider into a holistic wastewater management and resource recovery company. With an estimated amount of 5679 million litres per day (MLD) of treated effluent released from STPs around Malaysia, there is potential for IWK to reclaim the treated effluent for non-potable usage.

The progression through technological advancements fits into IWK’s agenda to be operationally sustainable, centring all it does on its people, which leads to environmental sustainability. With this in mind, IWK adopted the motto of ‘New Life for Water’, encapsulating all its initiatives to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG).

Malaysia is one of the countries that has committed to the UN SDGs and has taken the step to embrace SDG strategies through the introduction of the Green Technology Master Plan Malaysia (GTMP) in 2017. The Malaysian Government has stated its commitment under the Green Technology Master Plan 2017-30 to reuse 33% of the total treated effluent water to benefit all Malaysians. Related initiatives are also included in the Ministry of Environment and Water’s (KASA) direction towards Environmental Sustainability in Malaysia (2020-30), which aims to produce 1500 MLD of reclaimed water from treated effluent.

Supporting a circular economy agenda

The past year has been challenging and complex, and IWK is honoured to have received the International Water Association’s Professional Development Award 2021. Indeed, navigating these complexities of the past year was not easy, but IWK was blessed with a talented workforce that is capable of steering through these challenges.

Our people go through a two-pronged approach of skill and academic upscaling. The programmes comprised within the two-pronged approach include Designing Elegant Solutions for Innovation, Growth and Navigation (DESIGN), Future Leaders@IWK, collaboration with Department of Skills Development (DSD) Malaysia and Education Assistance Programme (EAP), to name a few. These programmes emphasise the application of adaptive thinking in problem solving and various circumstances through methodical sessions to develop future leaders and competent employees. In the past year, IWK organised 287 training programmes despite the administrative challenges of the global pandemic.

IWK’s in-house training centre, known as Asian Sewerage Training, Research and Innovation Centre of Excellence (ASTRICE), provides the relevant technical training programmes, not just for IWK employees, but also for other practitioners in the industry and the wider public. ASTRICE fulfils the role of developing human capital for the wastewater industry in order to elevate standards while building talent capacity. The centre provides excellent training facilities with experienced trainers and forward-looking programmes. The training programmes, done in collaboration with international and local experts, aim to prepare talents to meet the rigorous demands placed on wastewater quality by giving them the skills, knowledge and training they need to ensure the safety and proper management of our water supply.

A people-centric agenda

The organisation is only as good as the sum of its parts and the people constitute the main structure. In the area of caring for its people, IWK is a proponent of Goal 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), Goal 4 (Quality Education), Goal 5 (Gender Equality), Goal 8 (Excellent Work and Economic Growth) and Goal 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). Sewerage management is undoubtedly categorised as a field that is dirty, difficult and dangerous (3D). Hence, IWK ensures its employees are danger-proofed, focusing on the compliance of Employee Occupational, Health and Safety measures. Similarly, IWK monitors seriously the reduction in number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals, air and water pollution.

Furthermore, IWK provides technical skills training and upward mobility to create an environment that spurs skills and knowledge growth, enabling employees to pick up on entrepreneurial, technical and vocational skills. In the area of gender equality and empowering women and girls, IWK supports female workforce representation throughout all working levels. We are proud to put on record that there has been an increase of female representatives in its middle management team over the past four years, from 66 to 71 people. All these efforts are made possible through inclusive, non-discriminatory human resource management policies.

Internationally, IWK expanded its horizons in talent development when it worked together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and continued to provide knowledge transfer opportunities to many delegates from around the world. We had designed and customised sessions for more than 40 organisations, 6800 participants and seven countries all over Asia and Africa. Our efforts in sharing working knowledge with study tours from abroad have not only allowed us to showcase our success stories, but also build bridges of cooperations.

The talents are crucial in accelerating the growth of the company towards operational resiliency. This is because the number of assets that IWK operates and maintains have steadily increased, resulting in a many ageing and old assets since IWK’s inception in 1994. Without proper management, there can be adverse impacts on the wellbeing and health of communities. With regard to Goal 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), Goal 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) and Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), IWK continues to invest effort in its endeavour to be operationally sustainable.

In this regard, IWK adopts a waste-to-wealth approach by reusing the by-products produced post-wastewater treatment, known as bio-effluent, biosolid and biogas. IWK strategically aligns its business operations with KASA’s Strategic Direction 2020-30, particularly on sewerage operational expenditure recovery and water reclamation efforts.

For the bio-effluent reuse initiative, IWK embarked on a water reclamation initiative whereby wastewater treated from the STPs undergoes further treatment to be reused for non-potable purposes. This year, IWK entered into a joint venture with Pengurusan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd (Air Selangor) on a sustainable water recycling initiative through Central Water Reclamation Sdn Bhd (Central Water), a special purpose vehicle (SPV) company. The bio-effluent treated at IWK’s treatment plants will be further treated at Central Water’s treatment plant, which is equipped with advanced technologies to produce non-potable treated water that can be used safely for industrial purposes. This is a bold step toward the circular economy agenda, together with the reuse of the biosolid and biogas to minimise adverse impacts on human health and environment.

On biosolid reuse, IWK worked on a Black Soldier Fly initiative, which uses a particular species of fly that offers a good and environmentally efficient solution for waste management. What is interesting is that not only does the Black Soldier Fly larvae do its duty in waste management, but it also carries through as an animal feed supplement. On top of this initiative, the bio-solid can also be used as fertiliser and soil conditioner for non-food crops and to generate energy.

The third by-product, biogas, is reused to generate energy, as well in some of IWK’s STPs. Currently, six IWK STPs are capable of producing 10,000m3/day, with the potential to generate 20MW hours/day. IWK has been using the bio-gas produced from our STPs as a source of renewable energy for electricity, a testament to the green technology adoption.

In terms of the sewerage system technology and infrastructure, the National Water Services Commission (SPAN), a regulatory body in Malaysia for water and wastewater industries, has been supportive in ensuring that the sewerage system infrastructure undergoes improvement. SPAN has the jurisdiction over the capital expenditure of sewerage systems in Malaysia and in the past year, it approved a budget of RM142.8m (€29m) to upgrade 644 STPs. The upgrading works enable IWK to comply with the Environmental Quality (Sewage) Regulations 2009 standards and STPs located upstream of water intakes are upgraded to include green technology features, as well as for better treated effluent quality.

Striving for environmental sustainability

Despite all the initiatives taken by IWK to sustain its operations for environmental sustainability, there are external factors and parties who may knowingly or unknowingly contribute to environmental pollution, contrary to IWK’s duty to Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), Goal 13 (Climate Action) and Goal 14 (Life beyond Water).

IWK had to manage a few pollution issues when irresponsible parties discharged wastes illegally into the sewerage system, temporarily crippling the operations of the relevant STPs. In view of that, IWK employed additional shifts beyond the existing standard operating procedures, invested in more capable monitoring systems, and worked with the relevant authorities to prevent such situations from occurring again.

At the same time, there are many premises connected to septic tanks nationwide, with an estimated figure of 1.3 million septic tanks. Of these, only about 10% are desludged or maintained on a regular basis. March 2021 marked a significant milestone for KASA in addressing environmental pollution in the midst of unmaintained septic tanks by gazetting the Water Services Industry Act (Desludging Services) 2021. With this recent gazettement, customers whose premises are connected to septic tanks will need to conduct scheduled desludging of their septic tanks with tightened enforcement by the regulator.

This is done to ensure that IWK discharges its responsibility to the environment with greater enforcement. As the acceptance rate steadily increases, IWK continues to implement education and awareness programmes to all levels of communities about the importance of caring for our environment. Since 2018, IWK has hosted the ‘Friends of Rivers’ programme, whereby we have adopted 21 rivers nationwide and work with local communities to care for these. This is an awareness programme on the impact of treated wastewater, which is important for community sanitation, and how the properly treated wastewater is transformed into safer conditions before being released into the environment.

IWK is also committed to environmental sustainability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the implementation of green initiatives such as e-procurement, energy efficient equipment, and green technology, mainly in its STPs. IWK’s hallmark regional sewage treatment plant (RSTP), the Pantai 2 RSTP, which is the largest underground plant in Asia Pacific, is a primary example of IWK’s STP that employs green technology. P2RSTP maximises green energy use through the installation of solar panels, biogas utilisation, rainwater harvesting and final bio-effluent reuse for non- potable use, contributing RM6.5m (€1.32m) in yearly savings.

Conclusion and future direction

The initiatives and effort set out above support the circular economy-driven model and aspirations for environmental sustainability. The initiatives undertaken by the company will also address key water-related issues, such as climate change, contamination of water sources, and resource depletion.

Furthermore, we have adopted sustainable innovation practices and solutions to respond to the changing environment. Our expectation, therefore, is that we can continue to create long-term value for our people, operation and the environment.

Joseph Cheong is Manager of the Corporate Communications Department and Lina Ong is Senior Manager of the Corporate Planning Department at IWK.