Healthy Rivers Mean Healthy Communities, Forests in Sarawak

March 14th will mark the 18th annual International Day of Action for Rivers. Thousands of participants from around the world can find camaraderie in the international community advocating for the protection of rivers. It is a day to celebrate our rivers and the work we have achieved fighting for them as well as to spread awareness of the work to be done. The Borneo Project will participate by sending their director, Jettie Word, to Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia where SAVE Rivers is holding a celebration for the Day of Action for Rivers. This piece was written by Borneo Project fellow Erin O’Neill.

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Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rivers are an integral element of Borneo’s natural environment and to the indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on them. With fourteen of the island’s twenty major river sources located in the Heart of Borneo, it is crucial that the rivers are maintained throughout this island so that the rainforests and the people who depend on them can stay healthy. Borneo’s rivers are currently threatened by a series of mega-dams, logging initiatives, and palm oil plantations, all part of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE). These industries contaminate rivers and destroy river ecosystems, thereby putting at risk those who depend on rivers as a source of food, potable water, and livelihood.

Since the 1960s, Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and his family have occupied the most powerful seats in Malaysian Government—Taib’s brother-in-law, Adenan Satem, is currently the Chief Minister. Over the past half century, the government has exploited their authority by blurring the distinction between public and private enterprises and extending executive control over any judiciary systems. In the ’80s Malaysia’s economy took off as a manufacturing economy, and has become a major player in the timber industry, the palm oil industry, and the E&E industry. None of these enterprises are sustainable, and all have caused harmful impacts on the rivers in Borneo.

Logging concessions have been granted to family and friends within the government since the ‘60s. Few regulatory procedures were implemented, and those existing are vague and carry little integrity as no repercussions are mandated. Just eleven percent of Sarawak’s rainforests remain intact, and that number continues to fall. This past winter, Malaysia suffered from major flooding. Some flooding is almost inevitable during the rainy season, however these were particularly severe; the extensive and un-proctored land clearing undoubtedly contributed to the flood damage.

When there are fewer trees, there are fewer leaves to harbor the rainfall. Raindrops catch on leaves and will either evaporate or continue to fall to the ground but more softly, causing less erosion. Tree roots absorb water from rainfall, allowing soils to dry more quickly and store more rainwater. Tree roots are also natural stabilizers; by holding the soil in place, less sediment will run in to the riverbeds. When sediment accumulates, riverbeds narrow and become more prone to flooding. Flooded waters become turbid, and no longer potable.

Malaysia's government says the flooding is the worst in more than 30 years. Photo by

Malaysia’s government says the flooding is the worst in more than 30 years. Photo by

The flooding this past winter caused over twenty deaths, the displacement of some 200,000 people, and washed away habitats of endemic wildlife.

Palm oil plantations similarly clear-cut huge swaths of rainforest, however they also create tons of waste, pollution, and contamination. For every metric ton of palm oil produced, 2.5 metric tons of palm oil mill effluent (POME) is generated. What is exactly is POME? Good question, it is the most environmentally damaging by-product of palm oil. POME is hot and highly acidic, it contains residual oil, plant debris, and other nutrients that are high in biological oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD).

Although POME is now treated in conventional biological treatment systems, local waterways are contaminated by the byproduct. It can be difficult to meet effluent standards, especially when treatment systems run under poor management. During the rainy season an overflow of the wastewater treatment plants will badly contaminate nearby water. All communities—human, plant, and animal—suffer from these contaminated waters.

Streams and rivers are the primary sources for potable water in Sarawak. Turbid water caused by flooding, and contamination caused by POME, have both taken a toll on local access to clean water.

The Malaysian government along with Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), the state’s power monopolist, enacted SCORE (Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy) in 2008 with the goal to build 12 large dams. So far, two hydropower mega-dams have been built: the Murum dam and the Bakun dam. In addition to the numerous social, political, economic, and environmental injustices the government has conducted in the consecration of these dams, the Murum river and the Bakun river are both in bad condition. The Bakun dam, not yet operating at full capacity, has flooded 696 square kilometers of old forest ecosystems and displaced 10,000 Indigenous people who are now living in extreme poverty. The Murum dam in not operating due to complications with the turbines, however it is expected to be running my the end of 2015. Many families will be relocated as the reservoir will flood the local communities. The Baram dam, the third of SCORE’s hydropower dams, is currently in the works, however the local Dayak communities have been successful in blockading further construction of the dam.

Blockade at Lg Kesesh Km 15

Blockade at Longg Kesesh KM 15

The Bakun river now drowns what were once villages of the Kenyah and Kayan people, including farms and local forests. Those displaced by the dam now suffer from the loss of their homes and their health. Many experience chronic diarrhea as well as diseases from contaminated water. Others suffer from malnutrition because they no longer have the means to hunt. The sulfurous stench of the reservoir can be smelled from many kilometers away.

The head of Sarawak NGO Borneo Resources Institute, Mark Bujang, reiterates the horrific harm caused by hydropower dams:

 What the government is doing when they’re flooding all these areas is actually killing off the culture, the traditions of the community. It’s basically ethnocide…. We have seen the widespread destruction of the forests in Sarawak, but once you build a dam there, there’s nothing left. It’s the final nail in the coffin.

The Malaysian government wont stop harming their environment, their people, and their rivers until the message is heard globally, load and clear: Save Our Rivers!


For more information about Sarawak’s rivers and planned dams, watch our film on the Baram dam, “Damming Our Future”, below. It is the first in our series of films. Stay tuned, there will be more films coming your way soon.