FT Minister Khalid Samad says an external audit will be more effective for the evaluation of the River of Life project rather than an internal one. - NSTP/file pic

KUALA LUMPUR: As the pressure piles on the Federal Territories Ministry to launch a probe into the reported “irregularities” with the River of Life (RoL) project, its minister, Khalid Samad, has welcomed external auditors to scrutinise it.

The RM4.4 billion RoL project, which kicked off in July 2011, first came under the spotlight in the 2015 Auditor General’s Report for issues related to sewerage projects under Component 1.

The report took aim at the Energy, Green Technology and Water and Federal Territories ministries for multiple weaknesses in handling the sewerage projects, the backbone of the RoL.

The assessment reported on delays and contractual oversights, including non-compliance of effluent quality standards when the sewerage treatment plants were up and running.

Two years later, the auditor general again zeroed in on the project in its report for 2017. It said 13 extensions of between 45 and 365 days had been granted for the project.

Khalid said internal audits had been carried out on the project following the poor assessment of the RoL’s performance in the first series of the 2015 and 2017 Auditor General’s Reports.

“The ministry is looking at the issue and officers have been charged with reporting to me on the status of the project,” he said in an interview with the New Straits Times.

Khalid said an external audit would be more effective for the evaluation of the project rather than an internal one.

He said any audit done by the ministry or Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) would involve the “same people” involved in the planning, approving and monitoring the project, and, therefore, they would not be able to carry out their duties independently.

“Any internal audit will inevitably involve some of the same people and this will raise (more) questions. External auditors are welcome to look at it.”

Further complicating the issue was the fact that the project was 80 per cent complete by the time the Pakatan Harapan government came in, he claimed.

Khalid said the Federal Territories Ministry was merely the lead administrator of the RM4.4 billion spending.

“The RM1 billion was managed by us under the beautification component, but the RM3.4 billion was given out to the Natural Resources Ministry for the Department of Drainage and Irrigation to handle the river cleaning.”

Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) had earlier said no remedial measures were taken for the reported flaws revealed in the subsequent audit in 2017.

It said the audit conducted on six contracts (worth RM167 million) out of the 14 contracts (worth RM398 million) had revealed that as of October 2017, the costs of all six contracts had increased by RM15 million to RM182 million.

“All six contracts could not meet the completion date and this led to 19 extension of time (EOT) being granted, ranging from 92 days to 944 days,” said C4 executive director Cynthia Gabriel and senior researcher Lalitha Kunaratnam.

They claimed that there were “time-at-large” issues regarding the delays of contract certification, with inconsistent compliance in terms of river water effluent quality standards.

In addition, the actual monthly operating cost of the water waste treatment plant at Kuala Lumpur wholesale market was reported to be significantly higher (from 493 per cent to 835 per cent), compared with the initial estimation by the consultant.

“The operation at the Benteng Flood Reservoir Pool, for one, ceased on Oct 29, 2015 (10 days after the certificate of completion and compliance was issued) and the government had to incur additional unrecoverable costs of RM324,000 to fix the problem. Several thefts occurred on the Benteng site, resulting in further losses to the government.”

Last week, the NST frontpaged how heritage experts gave the thumbs down on the project, which they argued had failed to conserve historical aspects of the area and integrate the riverside developments with other fragmented parcels in the city centre.

The next day, National Water Services Commission chairman Charles Santiago urged the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to probe the project.

The Federal Territories Ministry was also urged to conduct internal inquiries.

The RoL project is divided into three components, covering an expansive river cleaning (110km), river beautification (of 10.7km of the corridors of Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak) and commercialisation and tourism of the twinning courses.

An entry point project (EPP), it was identified in the Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley national key economic area initiative, under the government’s Economic Transformation Programme.

Among the ambitious project’s goals was for the polluted rivers to achieve Class 11B, or “safe to touch” level.

Former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak launched the first phase of the RoL as well as the Blue Pool project in Masjid Jamek, here, in August 2017.

It was launched to much fanfare and a United Kingdom-based publication, The Independent, had even listed it as one of the Top 10 waterfront districts.

Less than a year and a half after the first phase of the project was launched, it started to show signs of wear and tear, which was evident around the first quarter of this year.

The majestic fountain fashioned after the Moorish architecture behind the iconic Sultan Abdul Samad building was rarely seen in its full glory as it was usually switched off.

The imported Turkish tiles lining the fountain beds at the sunken gardens were covered with moss and saw cracks in some places.

Cracks can also be seen on the marble steps, while the cobblestone pathway of Jalan Mahkamah Persekutuan seemed to be crumbling under the heat.

Earlier in May, Kuala Lumpur Mayor Datuk Seri Nor Hisham Ahmad Dahlan attributed the damaged fountains, sunken pools and broken marble and tiles to vandalism.

The Federal Territories Ministry estimated that RM1 million in repairs would be incurred and more allocation was needed from the government for the maintenance of the RoL.