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The sorry fate of Sarawak’s rivers

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The seemingly powerful rivers of Sarawak have been deeply affected by the state government’s unsustainable development policies, reports Tomasz Johnson.

River in Belaga, Sarawak - Photo courtesy of Lizzie Bardwell

It is not for nothing that the indigenous groups who have called the rainforests of Sarawak home for centuries are known as the orang ulu – upriver people. The iconic rivers of the state, on the island of Borneo, are ingrained in the culture and daily life of the natives.

For millennia the arterial waterways that criss-cross the landscape were their only means of transport, save trekking for days or weeks through unforgiving rainforest. They provided fresh water to cook and clean, fish to eat. The mighty Rajang and Baram, winding their way like Serpents from the depths of the interior, are as powerful an image of Sarawak as the hornbill.

River in Belaga, Sarawak © Lizzie Bardwell

But like so much in 21st century Sarawak, the reality subverts this peaceful image. The seemingly powerful rivers have been deeply affected by the state government’s development policies. Logging, which has taken place in almost all of Sarawak’s forests, has destroyed the rainforest’s capacity to hold rainwater. The fragile forest floor, which was once held together by the plant life it sustained, is now routinely washed into the rivers by tropical downpours. Beneath the milky-brown surface of the water lies feet of thick silt.

Though some communities have moved closer to the logging roads that have replaced rivers as the main means of transport, many still live on the banks of rivers. During the rainy season now the rivers swell like never before, destroying crops and swamping longhouses with floods of muddy water.

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The rise of the plantation industry has brought with it pollution. Effluent from palm oil mills, fertiliser and pesticide find their way into the rivers. Any native will tell you there are fewer fish than before. Some say washing in the river makes their skin itch. Drinking it is a definite no.

Now, the Sungai Rajang has fallen victim to the Sarawak government’s latest grand development scheme – the construction of megadams. The government has plans for 12 giant hydroelectric dams in the interior, plans only made public when accidentally leaked by the Chinese dam construction firm, Three Gorges Corporation.

The Bakun dam, which is already nearing completion, has already generated a great deal of controversy. It has displaced at least 10,000 indigenous people, many of whom have yet to be fully compensated eleven years after they were relocated. The international watchdog Transparency International branded it ‘a monument to corruption’.

The Bakun dam alone will generate three times the amount of power consumed by Sarawak and plans to channel the electricity to peninsula Malaysia via a giant underwater cable have fallen by the wayside. It is billed by opposition politicians as a white elephant, a waste of public money. The Sarawak government has a track record of bankrolling large projects that benefit construction firms linked to the political elite.

After years of delays the Bakun Dam is now being flooded. The impoundment began last month and within days, the level of the Rajang river had dropped by six metres. River transport has ground to a halt, upriver communities have become isolated and in some places the muddy river bed of the Rajang and its tributaries is exposed. It was reported that some schools in the interior were without fresh water after their wells dried up.

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The impoundment is expected to last seven months and will fill an area of 69,000 hectares to the height of a 44-storey building. The government responded to the drying of the Rajang and its tributaries by saying it had expected water levels to drop, but not to the extent that they did.

Planning and resource minister Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hassan told a press conference that unexpectedly dry weather had caused the problem.

“We gave the permit to start the impoundment this month because based on studies and weather reports, we are supposed to be in the monsoon season by now,” he said.

“We expect to have a heavy rain once a week, but then unexpected very dry weather sets in.”

The Sarawak government has in the past been quick to blame nature for problems caused by its unsustainable development policies. At around the same time that the impoundment of the Bakun dam began, a massive logjam blocked fully 50km of the Rajang.

The river became a mass of timber and uprooted trees after heavy rain caused a landslide at an upriver timber camp. The chief executive of Sarawak Forestry said over-logging and the impoundment were not to blame – it was a natural disaster.

Len Talif Salleh described the suggestion that it was anything else as “misconception and nonsense from an overseas source”.

Neither the drought or the logjam will serve as salutary lessons for Sarawak’s government, any more than the ecological impact of logging and plantations has. Whether or not the political elite truly understand the impact of their development policies over the last 30 years, they have repeatedly demonstrated that they will do nothing to remedy them.

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State elections lie just around the corner. The only hope for Sarawak’s rivers is that the orang ulu, and others, force change at the ballot box.

This article is reproduced with the permission of Molong Post.

Published on Aliran website on 17 December 2010

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