The Waterman of Penang


The late Datuk Ir Kam U-Tee worked tirelessly to manage and improve water supply in the state.

Datuk Ir Kam U-Tee.

In 1994 the Malaysian Water Association’s inaugural Manager of the Year award was given to a former chairman of the northern branch of the Institution of Engineers Malaysia (IEM). The same person was given the Distinguished Engineer Award in 2009 by the IEM’s Penang Branch in 2009. He is Datuk Ir Kam U-Tee, affably known to his fellow Penangites as the “Waterman of Penang”.

Kam was born on February 26, 1931. He lived through difficult years during the Second World War. As a boy he witnessed suffering and starvation in Indonesia, where his family was stranded. This deeply affected him and remained vivid in his memory; it shaped his outlook on life: to be empathetic and helpful to the disadvantaged, and to contribute to society. This was the stance he steadfastly maintained, and as an engineer he worked hard to bring water to all at an affordable price.

Kam was a graduate in Civil Engineering from Melbourne University, Australia, who after serving briefly as assistant bridge design engineer with the Country Roads Board of Victoria, returned to Penang in 1958. A career closely connected with the development and management of waterworks followed, spanning over three decades.

As assistant resident engineer, he supervised the construction of the Air Itam Dam, a major water supply project undertaken by the City Water Department of the City Council of George Town. Three years later, on the completion of the dam, he became resident engineer of the Air Itam Water Treatment Plant. There, he supervised construction and was also responsible for checking the structural design of the plant.

The plant was commissioned in 1963 and he was appointed assistant city water engineer. In 1968 he took over the post of city water engineer responsible for the water supply for all of Penang Island except Balik Pulau and Penang Hill. In 1973 the Penang Water Authority (PWA) was formed to manage the water supply for the whole state, and he was appointed as its first deputy chairman and general manager, a position he held until his retirement in 1990.

The City Water Department, headed by Ir Goh Heng Chong in the 1950s and later by Kam, was a well-run, self-financed engineering organisation able to carry out minor capital works with internally generated funds. Its successor, PWA, with a wider scope of work and responsibility covering the entire state, also ranked high on the list of efficient water supply organisations in the country. Today, in its privatised form, PWA is still supplying water at the cheapest rate, with the highest coverage (100% for urban areas and near 99.7% for rural areas), lowest non-revenue water loss (21.5%) and highest revenue collection efficiency (96%) in Malaysia.

Setting the Bar

(From left) Kam, Ir Goh Heng Chong and Datuk Seri Ir Dr Lee Yow Ching at the Teluk Bahang Dam in 2002.

It is a success story, born of a clear vision and persistent effort to improve and upgrade waterworks engineering and management practices.

Kam’s high standards enabled him to achieve results through innovation and team work. As an engineer, Kam was a keen and reflective observer with an enquiring mind. He could see things others did not. Several matters of a seemingly commonplace nature encountered in the early years of his career influenced his thinking and helped shape his approach.

While he was serving as assistant resident engineer at Air Itam Dam, he observed and was highly impressed by the contractor who, despite being practically illiterate, had sharp memory and a quick mind, and was capable of undertaking a major dam construction project at a price appreciably lower than the next tenderer.

Later, when he was resident engineer of Air Itam Water Treatment Plant, a 55-million-litre- a-day treatment facility designed by Goh, he was struck by the features of the control consoles of the hydraulic actuators. Simple and ingeniously improvised, fabricated from materials obtained from local hardware shops, this equipment remained operational for more than 30 years.

Revamping the System

The inception of PWA in 1973 followed the integration of the PWD-operated water supply system (serving the mainland, Balik Pulau and Penang Hill area) with the City Water Department (serving Penang Island excluding Balik Pulau Penang Hill area).

As its general manager, Kam initiated and implemented policies and systems to ensure that the newly formed body would function as a viable entity, supplying potable water to all segments of the population at an affordable price. First, he continued with the City Water Department’s sound policy of “pay-as-you-use”.

Second, he realised it was critical to PWA’s viability to have an a system where billing and recording payments should be timely, and recognised the potential of computer-based systems. He introduced the first computerised water billing system in the country. It was soon followed by another PWA-developed system: the system of joint revenue collection for multiple agencies (one-stop payment).

Third, Kam had to come up with a new tariff and devised a three-part domestic tariff which, while discouraging overconsumption and wastage, would have minimal impact on low-income consumers. This model of progressive tariff has been maintained to this day.

Water Woes

A perennial problem confronting the waterworks industry is the so-called non-revenue water (NRW). It has two aspects: revenue loss through faulty meter recording and under-reading as well as under-billing and non-payment (commercial loss); and revenue loss through water loss in the pipe system (physical loss).

While commercial loss can be largely mitigated through the detection and rectification of erroneous meter recording and under-reading, and an efficient billing and collection system, reducing physical loss is far more challenging.

The Penang piped-supply network dates back to the 1870s and over a time span of some 140 years an assortment of pipes has been laid. Ageing and deteriorating pipes inevitably result in water loss through breakage. Furthermore, there is no stopping a slow climb in the number of breakages. A long-term replacement programme, financed by internally generated funds, had to be put in place and implemented by stages on a priority basis.

Rather than rely on an expensive leak detection programme which, after much expense and time often could only determine the actual percentage of losses, Kam used a simple, effective approach.

A system was introduced to monitor and record the breakage of mains and pipes alongside each road in each district, and used to compile comprehensive statistics based on the data reported quarterly. The number of breakages per kilometre per year for the mains, road and district was used to prioritise uneconomic pipes for replacement. With this approach, tangible results were obtained as well as the number of breakages for the whole network; hence NRW losses decreased from year to year.

A Man of Vision

Kam was always looking at ways to improve the operational efficiencies of water treatment plants. In his visits to each and every plant, he would make it a point to ask the staff to clarify operational procedures and also the reasons for implementing them. He would then analyse and think through the matter and tell them the answers. Then he would follow up with another question: can we improve upon them?

He believed that “mutual trust, confidence and respect between operations staff and senior management is a fundamental requirement for efficient operations.”

Kam was of the view that few design consultants were able to review a plant to determine its weaknesses without a good understanding of theory and practice. Application of imported foreign technology, without analysing its aptness and the ability of operations, often did not yield the expected results.

An outcome of his quest to improve operational efficiencies was his patented “Improved Hydraulic Flocculation System for Water Treatment Plant”. The system provides an efficient toroidal recirculation environment to ensure increased flow concentration and contact time for particle mixing. It is a flexible and controllable system which automatically adjusts to a large range of flow conditions without the need for complex control mechanism or for moving parts.

Another outcome was the upgrading of existing plants for significant incremental benefits. A notable example was the upgrade of three treatment plants in a neighbouring state, doubling the total capacity from 50mgd (million gallons per day) to 100mgd at a modest cost of RM25mil; Kam served as the consultant. The additional 50mgd output from the three plants would translate into annual revenue of RM29mil, assuming a 30% NRW and an average price of water of RM0.50 per cubic meter.

Contributions to Penang

Perhaps the most significant outcome for the people of Penang has been that water in the state is less costly than elsewhere in the country.

Just as he devoted much time to improving the efficiency of treatment plants with the view to reduce the cost of water, Kam endeavoured to minimise capital investment. As an example, the 45-million-litre rectangular reinforced contrete service reservoir measuring 85m x 79m x 9m, constructed at Bukit Dumbar in 1982, was the single largest service reservoir built in the country at that time.

To reduce the quantity of materials used – hence the cost of construction – he designed the reservoir wall as a propped cantilever with pre-stressing tendons carried through the reservoir roof. Another example was the reduction of material cost of the 1,400mm diameter concrete-lined mild steel pipeline in the Mengkuang Pumped Storage Scheme. He conducted a prototype test at site where the pipe was subject to actual loading conditions and found that it was possible to reduce the thickness of the steel pipe by taking into consideration the stiffness of the concrete lining. In both cases significant cost-saving was achieved. Being cost-conscious seemed to be his second nature when it came to the spending of PWA funds. Last but not least is the bigger picture he had kept in view: the strategic perspective of sequential source development to meet increasing demand.

There are no sizable rivers on Penang Island. Opportunities for even modest storage development are few. Up to the 1950s extraction from unregulated flows of small rivers and streams was the principal mode of source development. Following the completion of Air Itam Dam in the early 1960s, rapidly increasing demand in the 1970s had to be met by bringing water from the inter-state Muda River on the mainland under the Muda River Water Scheme, which is able to supply water for the whole of Penang state.

The possible development of a dam of moderate storage capacity at Teluk Bahang was initially identified in the early 1960s. By comparison, Muda River with its much larger catchment, promised by far the greater potential, albeit supply reliability would always be subject to the vagaries of climatic conditions.

To augment and stabilise supply during dry seasons, especially in the event of a drought, the provision of a strategic storage facility to sustain supply became imperative and the Mengkuang Pumped Storage Scheme was implemented. Kam played a key role in the identification of the Mengkuang Dam site. Its strategic location permits water to be pumped from Muda River and Kulim River, another inter-state river, into an off-river reservoir during rainy seasons to be released to sustain supply during dry seasons.

The Mengkuang Pumped Storage Scheme was completed in 1985. It was the forerunner of the Mengkuang Dam Expansion Scheme currently being completed with an effective storage of more than three times that of the first scheme. Meanwhile the Muda River Water Scheme has been progressively upgraded. These developments have resulted in raising the initial yield of the Muda River Water Scheme of 136ml a day in 1972 to 817ml a day following the completion of the Mengkuang Dam Expansion Project.

After his retirement from public service, Kam remained active for a further 23 years. He continued to contribute to the betterment of waterworks engineering and management practices. He served as short-term consultant for the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and USAID to review waterworks projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines. He also served as advisory consultant for projects in China, the Philippines, Indonesia, West Indies and Papua New Guinea. At home, he designed the upgrades of more than a dozen water treatment plants in Kedah, Penang and Perak.

He worked almost to the end – he made his last field inspection six months before he passed away on March 21, 2014.

This impressive list of achievements is the legacy for which he will be fondly remembered.

This article is an abridged version of “A Tribute to Dato’ Ir. Kam U Tee – An Outstanding Engineer and Contributor”.

Penang Monthly carried a cover story on Kam U-Tee in 2011. Read it at aspx?pageid=7667&name=keeping_ penang_watered

Cheong Chup Lim is former Deputy Director-General of the Drainage and Irrigation Department. He was Kam’s contemporary at the City Council of George Town, Penang in the late 1950s.
Datuk Seri Ir Dr Lee Yow Ching, an engineering consultant, is former Deputy Chairman and General Manager of the Penang Water Authority. He has been involved with Penang's water suppy for more than 40 years.

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