Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rural Sarawak Expedition

One of my interesting experience making expedition in rural areas was along Sungai Rajang some years ago.  My destination was the Kayan Long House at Long Buko, the catchment area of Bakun Dam, to study the community.  Sungai Rajang is the longest river in Malaysia and it took a few days to reach the upstream tributaries, particularly  at that time I had to cross the Bakun dam which was under construction. I started the journey from Sibu to Belaga by express boat at 5.30am  and arrived 8 hours later.  I stayed two nights in Belaga, made arrangement for transportation, using 4WD to cross the Bakun Dam construction site and then continued the journey by boat for another 5 hours. Traveling up Balui river was very challenging particularly we had to pass through many rapids and some were very dangerous. Luckily, we there were very experienced and skilled Kayan boatman, Pran, Tinggang and his brothers who knew the route very well, even traveling in darkness. Traveling up Balui river was also costly because  need  a lot of petrol to burn up two 40-horse powered engines. Pran said to cross the rapids need powerful boat engine  and using two, not only add to power but also necessary as backup if any of the engine fail. The boat will definitely capsized if the engine fail when passing through fast flowing rapids. Apart from that, there was nobody to pick up if stranded on the way.

Originally there were 15 villages (long houses) in the upstream of Rajang river (Balui River). With the construction of Bakun dam, they were resettled to a new settlement at Sungai Asap. The Kayan community I visited was the a group of them, Uma Balui Leguei, consisted of about 40 households who refused to move to new settlement because not satisfied with compensation offered by the government. They protested that their land were not surveyed (sukat) by the government and thus not received compensation appropriately.
A Kayan Settlement at Long Jawi

I stayed with the Kayan community for a week, observed their daily life, and took part in some of their activities such as following them hunting, milling rice, and visiting their farm. Living in that remote area really felt isolated not only due to distance but also no communication facilities available. The only way the people from outside to communicate or sent messages was via local radio.
Fishing using "Jala"

The making of  "rattan mat"

The Bakun Hydro Electric Dam will begin sumping water in mid-October 2010,and  is expected to start generating 300 megawatt (MW) of electricity by June 2011, when the water level reach 195 meter  (minimum for the operation of hydro turbine) and have maximum capacity to generate 2,400 MW when fully in operation by 2012. About 69,500 hectare of land in the catchment area will be flooded including the Kayan settlement  above. But I was told that the long house had been relocated to a higher place not far away from the previous location. The boatman, name Pran, who took me to the long house did had plan to buy a bigger boat, since he foresaw the potential of tourism activities in the area when the dam completed.

Boatman-Pran, want to have bigger boat when Bakun Dam completed

Starmetro, October 27, reported on low water level of Rajang river after impoundment of Bakun Dam in October 13. It has left people high and dry as jetties in towns and longhouses were several meters above water mark, making it very inconvenient and dangerous for people to  move, loading and unloading of goods. Express boat and cargo boats can't get through the Pelagus Rapids and thus no services from Kapit to Belaga.   Transportation of logs by tongkang  from upper Baleh also stopped because of low water level.

 Berita Harian Jan, 16, 2011 reported on the visit of Prime Minister to Sungai Asap, Bakun and Belaga. During the visit to the Sungai Asap resettlement scheme Najib heard the plight of the people in the settlement with regard to their socio-economic condition. PM mentioned that Federal Government will write off the remaining housing loans of about RM41 million owed by some 1500 families who were relocated following the construction of the Bakun hydroelectric dam. The government will also look into providing additional land for farming to the settlers, which the current 1.2 hectares is too small to generate enough income to support the cost of living. Announcement was also made on the upgrading and building of  37km stretch of road linking Belaga, Bintulu and Bakun costing about RM62mil to benefit about 15000 people. During my visit to Belaga in 2003 I did experience traveling through the road used by people to Bintulu and also linking to Bakun and Sungai Asap. The road was very rough constructed by logging company for transporting logs. Apart very undulating, it was muddy and only 4WD vehicles fit to travel through. The one way trip cost RM50 per person.

Chronology   of the Bakun  dam development

1960s- Snowy Mountain Hydroelectric Authority of Australia, under the Colombo Plan, identified   Bakun, through which Balui flows had potential of  hydroelectricity.
1977- detailed study  conducted by Sarawak Electricity Supply Co  reconfirmed the potential of  Bakun hydroelectricity.
1980s- The Sarawak Master Plan Study for Power Development  and a corresponding feasibility study completed in  1983 indicated that  hydropower project at Bakun was both technically feasible and financially viable but the supply has to be transmitted to Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia as well.
National Energy Planning study was undertaken and looking into Bakun in the context of overall energy policy. The study estimated that the dam would cost about RM 8 billion.
1985- economic recession resulted in Bakun Dam being relegated aside.
1986- the government announced that it intended to proceed with Bakun despite recession,
1986-1993- the period of silence, but  protest from indigenous people from the Bakun area and other concerned Malaysian and environmentalist groups.
1993- The Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department approved the project (July) and subsequently  the cabinet (September).
1993- Oct 1, it was revealed that  Bakun would be a 2,400MW dam costing about RM12 billion and would flood an area the size of Singapore.
1994-  Sarawak-based Ekran Bhd had won the contract to construct and operate the dam.
Ekran Assigned the preparation of an EIA to Unimas.
1995- EIA was approved in March 1995. Forest were cleared and the process of resettling  people from the area affected by the dam began. Natives of the bakun area seeks a High Court ruling that the jurisdiction of EIA being under the auspices of the state government was unlawful. But a Court of Appeal decision overruled a stop-work order from the High Court. 
1997- Bakun was shelved due to Asian financial crisis.
1998- The bakun project was returned to the Minister of Finance Inc. (MoF)
1999- the government compensated Ekran  RM900 million.
2000- the project was revived on a smaller scale, without the undersea cables.
2003- the Edge reported that Sarawak Hidro was still a wholly owned subsidiary of MoF and going to be 60 per cent owned by GIIG Capital Sdn Bhd, a company linked to tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al Bukhari. Negotiation was on the way t how much the power generation should be distributer among the main users and the tariff charge.  Sarawak Hidro is approaching EPF, Affin bank, Bank Islam to help with  loans for financing the project.
2010-  dam  reservoir  ready to keep water and production of electricity within 6 months.

Source: The Edge Malaysia, 0ctober 13, 2003

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