The government displaced and resettled local communities for a controversial dam; now it has to ensure that the river is not polluted and the dam managed diligently. Carol Yong writes.
It was 25 April 2003 at exactly 10.10am. Syarikat Pengeluar Air Sungai Selangor Sdn Bhd (Splash) announced that the Sungai Selangor Dam was completed two months ahead of time. On hand to officiate at the ‘plugging’ ceremony was then-Selangor Menteri Besar Khir Toyo.
The then-Barisan Nasional-led Selangor government awarded a 30-year concession for the third phase of the Sungai Selangor water supply scheme to Splash, without an open tender.
Splash (previously known as Konsortium TSWA-Gamuda-KDEB) comprised a Wan Azmi Wan Hamzah-linked concern, construction giant Gamuda and Kumpulan Darul Ehsan Berhad (KDEB), the investment arm of the Selangor government.
The 110m-high Sungai Selangor Dam over the Selangor-Gerachi rivers was part of several components of the third phase. Construction began in 1999, and the dam was to have a storage capacity of 235 million cubic metres of water to quench the water needs of Selangor’s industrial and resident areas.
The dam flooded 600ha of land and displaced two Orang Asli Temuan villages, Kampung Gerachi and Kampung Peretak.
None of the villagers knew about the dam construction until much later. Nor were they aware of the 45 conditions attached to the environmental impact assessment conducted by SMHB Sdn Bhd, an engineering consulting firm appointed by the consortium itself.
Despite vigorous protests by the affected Orang Asli and various civil society groups, the state government framed the construction of the dam following the utilitarian logic of the people’s sacrifice for the ‘common good’.
For their ‘sacrifice’, the resettled Orang Asli were loaded into a lorry provided by the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) at 8am and brought to the plugging ceremony. At the ceremony, none of them, apart from the Kampung Gerachi batin (headman), was able to see what the fuss was all about as the close-up viewing was for selected VIPs and the media.
The fuss: the lowering of a specially constructed gate upstream of the diversion tunnel to mark the beginning of impounding or flooding of the dam.
Water supply disruptions
Today, almost two decades after the Sungai Selangor Dam impoundment – when the dam reached its full supply level, ie 220m above sea level, on 13 April 2004 – the obvious benefit would have been an assured sustainable water supply for water-thirsty industries and residents of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.
After all, that was the justification the Selangor state government gave at the time for the project: to avert a water crisis similar to that of 1998.
But instead of regularly flowing taps, over a million people in the Klang Valley and Selangor have faced an unscheduled water supply disruption. The culprit, according to the current Pakatan Harapan-led Selangor authorities: “illegal dumping” by both private and state polluters, into the Selangor River.
According to Aliran’s Mustafa K Anuar, many Klang Valley residents had experienced water cuts at least five times caused by pollution since last year. As many commentators have written, whether it is a water supply cut or violations of standard operating procedures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, it is always the poorest and most marginalised who are hardest hit.
I sympathise with my fellow rakyat.
Damning the dam
On writing about the Sungai Selangor Dam, I often remember the displaced Temuans, especially an accomplished Orang Asli ceremonial singer, musician, mother, grandmother and activist from Kampung Peretak. Those who knew her, fondly called her Mak Minah. She was also the mother of the current Kampung Gerachi batin.
Mak Minah Anggong often lamented the loss of the Temuan way of life and their ancestral lands and forests with the construction of the dam. She expressed this through her singing and public performances of the Akar Umbi group (of which she was the lead) or at village and NGO gatherings.
I remember the deep sense of sorrow in her tone upon seeing her fellow Temuans resettled at Sungai Tua because of the Batu Dam or those from Sepang resettled at Bukit Cheeding: “Look at how these people live, so congested and with no forests and rivers!”
Mak Minah never lived to see her relatives and neighbours move into rumah batu (brick houses), which were provided as part of the resettlement and rehabilitation package when the Sungai Selangor Dam inundated the traditional villages of Gerachi and Peretak. She died on 21 September 1999 as the resettlement of the affected families in Kampung Gerachi began.
Previously a free-flowing river, the Selangor River is now impeded by concrete. The river once gave the Gerachi and Peretak Orang Asli free access to water and provided autonomy to the children, women and men who enjoyed going to the river to collect water, wash or simply enjoy its serenity.
The two Orang Asli settlements along the Sungai Selangor – where Temuan families have lived for decades, their livelihoods provided by the rich biodiversity of the river and surrounding forests – are now reconfigured.
The families were variously compensated for lost livelihoods when the resettlement programme was implemented. Despite that, many of the families today face increased vulnerability and impoverishment.
This is consistent with the findings of many studies that “compensation alone cannot prevent the impoverishment of resettlers and cannot in itself restore and improve their livelihoods”.
Their lived experiences attest to this. When I revisited the Gerachi and Peretak villages in March 2018, parents told me their grown-up children – who were little girls and boys tagging along with me as my able research assistants when I interviewed their parents in the affected areas – had landed in similar low-wage jobs as they had. These jobs included harvesting bamboo and rattan or working as cleaners and domestic helpers for rich families in cities and towns.
Inevitably, the stress is on the sacrifice of the ordinary people for the wider national benefit, for the ‘common good’. If the government has displaced people and resettled the local communities for the ‘common good’, then the authorities have to be the ones to ensure the river or dam is not polluted and instead managed efficiently and diligently.
Have they fulfilled their duties?
Carol Yong is an activist and independent writer