Hornbill Unleashed

October 30, 2010

The mighty Rajang River not so mighty after all

By Chris Reubens

Malaysian Mirror

Malaysia’s longest river – the Rajang in Sarawak – is a source of food, income and a mean of transport for the people living along the 640km waterway.

Once the pride of Sarawak, the Rajang is now old and sick with years of abuses, mostly man-made. And recently, there’s growing fear that the water level is running low. It has reached a critically low point as reported.

On Oct 8, the Rajang was suffocated with logjam causing losses of RM2.7 million after bridges and jetties were swept away with tons of debris, about 70km from Kapit. It affected cargo services and express passenger boats for a few days.

Fed by several tributaries, the river is regarded as a lifeline for the people living along it, from Sibu to the interior districts of Kanowit, Song, Kapit and Belaga.

Also, rubbish and debris from residents situated near the rivers, planks and unwanted logs from the jungles had taken its toll on the mighty river which is brownish instead of being clear and a clean source of water.

rajang-logjamIt has always been a joke among frequent flyers who view the river from the air and boat travellers along the river, that if you want a glass of “teh-si”, all you need is to scoop it from the Rajang River.

The Upper Rajang River is known as Batang Balui by the Orang Ulu with tributaries which included Katibas River, Balleh River and Bangkit River.

Deputy Chief Minister Dr. George Chan said the state government has yet to ascertain the loss to the ecological system as the Sarawak Natural Resources and Environment Board and Sarawak Rivers Board are still doing their investigation.

He also denied that the logjam was due to over logging and poor management of logged areas, and he assured the public that all the logging industry in the area are abiding by the rules and regulations tied to the forest practice recognized by the International Tropical Timber Organisation.

On Oct 13, the impoundment of water into the controversial Bakun Dam, which is about 30 miles from Belaga, started.

Immediately after the impoundment, the water level in the Rajang and its tributaries dropped by more than 6 metres, causing river transportion in Belaga to come to a standstill during the weekend. The impoundment is expected to last seven months.

The flooding of the dam was met with resistance from environmentalists who felt that the prolonged drought would bring negative ecological consequences. The effect is showing now.

The RM7.3 billion hydro electric dam project has been called one of the most expensive white elephants in the state. It was delayed and infested with political issues. It is now up for sale with the Sarawak government as one of its main contenders.

The dam – one of South-east Asia’s largest – was awarded to tycoon Ting Pek King’s Ekran Bhd in early 1994 and four years later, the Federal government took control of the project.

Although river transport had resumed in Kapit the last two days, Belaga is still inaccessible by river.

A farmer, Kallang, who hitched a ride with a Sibu businessman moaned about the tragedy that befell them.

Blaming it entirely on the Bakun dam, Kallang said the gods of the jungles are angry. He said he used to travel from Belaga to Kapit by boat in five hours, costing him RM35. Now he has to hitch a ride with a towkay who is his friend to go to Kapit to see his sons who work there.

Kallang said the towkay drove from Belaga to Bintulu which took them six hours due to the heavy rain. From there, they drove to Sibu taking them another three hours and followed by an exhaustive boat ride from Sibu to Kapit for five hours.

He said he was lucky to get a ride from the towkay as his expenses were paid for. Kallang said the Belaga people have suffered tremendously due to the dam. Bakun-2

“We don’t need it. We want our jungles back. All these are unnatural and caused a lot of strange things to happen,” he said believing firmly in the guardian of the jungle.

The Sibu businessman, Ling, said things are looking bad for the people of Belaga. They complained of low water pressure, more expensive items and being stuck in the town as not many people could afford to go through Bintulu to Sibu.

Ling said he did not want to believe that the low water level was not due to the Bakun dam impoundment. “I am not an expert but why did it happen right after the impoundment? It has been raining in Belaga the last two nights,’ he said. The excuse that the river is low on water due to public statements that it may be due to lack of rainfall is questionable.

He said a lot of cargo and express boats and those who had business dealings in the interior region had suffered  losses this month. “We are already facing hardship, the government does not understand. They can go by helicopter or don’t go there at all,” he said.

The problems faced by the people living along the river are not just over issues raised and caused by the logjam and the low water level in interior central regions. It certainly makes matter worst when politicians and government servants gave contradicting statements in explaining the causes of the “calamity”.

When the authorities said it was due to natural disaster, it created a furor among the people. The problem of logjam took care of itself the natural way after the logs were washed to open seas.

When Malaysian Mirror talked to Environmental and Public Health Minister Wong Soon Koh who spend five hours conducting aerial inspection on the Upper Rajang, he was not so anxious to say it was a natural disaster. Having said the logjam was a natural disaster before, Wong had been bombarded with a lot of disagreement from the men on the streets.

“I can’t say for now. Let us finish our reports first. It is too technical,” said Wong.

He said besides the NREB, Drainage Irrigation Department, Sarawak Rivers Board, Sarawak Forestry Corporations and other related agencies, he would do a thorough study before tabling it in the DUN soon.rajang_logjam01

Undoubtedly, it was a shock for the riverine residents to see what happened to their river, when they were not only faced with a massive log jam which damaged and endangered infrastructure and riverine life, but now is faced with low water level following the beginning of the impoundment process of the new Bakun Dam.

Now it is difficult for boats to use the old wharfs, some parts of the tributaries are not accessible by boats due to its low tide, and people have to take more time and expenditure to travel from one place to another.

They say that development may have its price. Deforestation will lead to the killing of natural habitats of many wild lives. Not that the people along the Rajang are against developments. They just do not want it to be associated with their lives fraught with difficulties instead of making things more comfortable.

The Eskimo community may have its “Guardians of the Snow”; the jungles of South America may have its “Sentinel” who takes care of the people living along the mighty Amazon.

Perhaps, the “Guardians of the Rajang River” have been made angry by what they have done to the greenery of the central region of the Land of the Hornbill.


  1. […] The mighty Rajang River not so mighty after all By Chris Reubens Malaysian Mirror Malaysia’s longest river – the Rajang in Sarawak – is a source of food, income and a mean of transport for the people living along the 640km waterway. Once the pride of Sarawak, the Rajang is now old and sick with years of abuses, mostly man-made. And recently, there’s growing […] Read more on Hornbill Unleashed […]

    Pingback by In YunNan (云南资讯) - The mighty Rajang River not so mighty after all — November 1, 2010 @ 2:49 PM | Reply

    • There is a song about the Rajang in Chinese

      Does anyone know the words?

      Comment by wonderworld — November 2, 2010 @ 2:33 PM | Reply

  2. Perhaps James Masing should perform naked ngajat dance (not miring) to call for rains and stop the Rejang River dry-up. Don’t forget it works wonder elsewhere and much, much cheaper cost than ‘miring’ too – no pigs, no liquors, no Pirex plates required but just a naked dance WoooHoooo:

    Naked girls plough fields for rain!
    Reuters, Posted: Jul 24, 2009 at 1308 hrs IST

    Patna – Farmers in Bihar have asked their unmarried daughters to plough parched fields naked in a bid to embarrass the weather gods to bring some badly needed monsoon rain, officials said on Thursday.

    Witnesses said the naked girls in Bihar state ploughed the fields and chanted ancient hymns after sunset to invoke the gods. They said elderly village women helped the girls drag the ploughs.

    “They (villagers) believe their acts would get the weather gods badly embarrassed, who in turn would ensure bumper crops by sending rains,” Upendra Kumar, a village council official, said from Bihar’s remote Banke Bazaar town.

    “This is the most trusted social custom in the area and the villagers have vowed to continue this practice until it rains very heavily.”

    India this year suffered its worst start to the vital monsoon rains in eight decades, causing drought in some states.

    Women Dance Naked in Nepal for Rain
    Associated Press, 06/08/2005 9:00:33 AM

    KATMANDU, Nepal – More than 100 women danced naked in a remote mountainous village in Nepal hoping the gods would be pleased and give them rain, a news report said Tuesday. ADVERTISEMENT

    The women gathered at a local school, smeared their faces with black powder and danced naked last week at Darbang village, about 175 miles west of the capital, Katmandu.

    “People in this area believe the (Hindu god) Mahadev will be happy and provide rain once women perform such a nude dance,” the Kathmandu Post quoted local teacher as saying.

    Weather forecasters say monsoon rain needed for crops has been delayed in the region this year.

    Comment by Dayak Mudah Lupa — November 1, 2010 @ 1:32 PM | Reply


    Dr. Moneygrabbing Mahathir’s company built Bakun – earned $7 billion and earns another $7 billion by selling it back to magician Pekmo Taib. Pekmo has not asked us if we want it back.He just went ahead to say “yes” to KL. Where is the logic? Could he not first tell KL to give it to us as a development project? Even so what would we do with it? No real industrialisation in Sarawak.

    Bakun impoundment leads to Rajang River drying up and affects everyone living along the river and also inland as they cannot import or export food and essentials etc. This represents millions of dollars loses for private and commercial interest dependent on the Rajang and the whole river ecology with the inevitable deterioration of water life and resources etc.

    This disaster symbolic of Kuala Lumpur now Putra Jaya’s colonial relationship with us.

    Through Mahthir’s grand scheme he directly and indirectly sucked out $7billion and for seconds, he got another $7 billion because Taib threw that in straight away.

    In return as for the past 47 years, our people are left high and dry and destitute. This time the disaster is of major proportions in terms of money robbed from us and the socio-economic impact on all the people in th Rajang River basin.

    Sibu may be the only benficiary – there may be less flooding from now on. Thanks UMNO PB BN! Thanks for nothing!

    So people do we want to continue to be victims of the KL bloodsucking machine for one more day?

    Comment by Abang — November 1, 2010 @ 10:49 AM | Reply

  4. This article first appeared in Malaysian Mirror and there is not credit given to the news site when it is used here. Hornbill Unleashed should have credited MM for publishing the story first. I have seen MM always credited Hornbill Unleashed when it used your story.

    Comment by nicolee — October 31, 2010 @ 9:41 PM | Reply

    • Thanks for pointing out the oversight. We apologise for not giving credit to Malaysian Mirror and we’ve amended the article.

      Comment by Hornbill Unleashed — October 31, 2010 @ 11:06 PM | Reply

  5. […] mighty Rajang River, the pride of Sarawak, has been reduced to a pitiable state, as this entry in Hornbill Unleashed illustrates vividly. The livelihoods of many along the river banks have been […]

    Pingback by Taib Mahmud and the Bakun jinx « anilnetto.com — October 31, 2010 @ 6:42 PM | Reply

  6. The Ibans and the Orang Ulu,and all those residings along the Rejang,are now paying the price of being too trusting and subservient to BN propaganda,and can’t actually complain those responsible for the disaster.

    Will they now able to change their mind and vote BN out?After all its the Iban leaders who actually distort the truths to be elected to power,and lived a glamorous life in the cities leaving the electorates to fend for themselves and suffer due to greed and personal gains.Promises after unfulfilled promises had been made,and still they bought BN lies.How long will they wait to see the promise fulfilled?Even your MP also cried foul,and yet they loved all the lies,and hopefully they enjoy it and relish it to be passed down to their offsprings.


    Comment by Papayuk — October 31, 2010 @ 4:00 PM | Reply

  7. The people of Sarawak, especially the Rajang folks, are just beginning to reap the bitter fruits from the ill-conceived “Politics of Development’. What next after the siltation of the Rejang at Sibu, the logjam, the depleted Empurau stocks, dried up mother river, —? A debt of RM 8 billion to buy back Bakun Dam ?
    The initial EIA report for Bakun was kept under wraps and ignored, no contigency plans are in place to deal with this present and any future havoc from the operations of the massive dam.

    For the greed and megalomania of a few, the poor folks of the Rejang are now having to pay the price of transport disruption, physical isolation, supply bottlenecks, rising prices ( after recent introduction of uniform prices for the interior), perhaps even more hardships in the months ahead. How do they now go to a government hospital or clinic ?

    For a regional calamity of this size, affecting the longest river of Malaysia, top State and National leaders seem unconcerned, as if the ostrich with head in the sand is the wisest response ! They are busy at the BUY elections, and would not pay a site visit as yet to assess the hardship of the people.

    The clear message is : Why care, let the people suffer! Bakun dam must deliver electricity in seven months, being 10 years behind schedule.


    Comment by francis ngu — October 30, 2010 @ 11:26 PM | Reply

  8. George Chan keeps quoting the International Tropical Timber Organisation as some kind of stamp of approval. It’s just a fig leaf. Logging in Rejang and elsewhere in Sarawak is under-reported to evade tax and set aside funds to pay off greedy politicians.

    Comment by landowner — October 30, 2010 @ 7:01 PM | Reply

  9. One can take it as divine intervention. The Dayaks living along and depending on the mighty Rejang had been BN supporters all along and refuse to vote otherwise. Now with this massive disaster which affect their daily life, hopefully they would open their eyes to what the BN has done to them. Do they really want to continue a government that destroy their very existence? Time to wake up my fellow Sarawakians or you are doomed.

    Comment by fcuk'd'bn — October 30, 2010 @ 2:15 PM | Reply

    • Too bad….if they wake up the BN gomen will them more tuak, apek, langkau, beer huda….so they can get drunk and sleep for ever…

      Comment by Head Hunter XXX — October 30, 2010 @ 10:46 PM | Reply

  10. Taib Mahmud is the perfect sacrifice Sarawakians can offer to the Gods of the Mighty Rajang to appease the spirit to prevent more devastating calamity yet to come.

    Comment by Asri Rahman — October 30, 2010 @ 12:09 PM | Reply

  11. Damned Chinese: mighty Mekong a memory
    February 24th, 2010 by Andrew Walker · 19 Comments

    The Bangkok Post ran this story on 22 February:

    Ever since the completion of a few dams across the Mekong river in China, the once mighty river, which flows through all the riparian countries except China, has diminished to a trickle every dry season. The situation this year is worse than the previous years and the worst is yet to come with more dams being built.

    If they were alive today, our forefathers would be in shock. The mighty Mekong – the traditional lifeline of Chinese, Burmese, Thais, Lao, Cambodians and Vietnamese – has dried up so badly this year that it no longer qualifies to be called a river.

    Boat travel from Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong district to the old Lao capital of Luang Prabang, a popular tourist route has been halted because the water too shallow for boats with the capacity to accommodate more than four people. Cargo boats from China have been stranded in Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai.

    Chirasak Inthayos, coordinator of the Network for the Conservation of Mekong River Natural Resources and Cultures, said that the river’s condition is the worst for more than a decade. He could only imagine how much worse it will be by April, when the dry season normally peaks.

    This drying up of the Mekong River is attributable to the closure of four Chinese dams in the upper reaches of the river reportedly to conserve water for electricity generation. The southern Chinese province of Yunnan, which borders Burma and Laos, is reported to be experiencing the worst drought in more than 60 years.

    It is obvious that the Chinese government could not care less about the hardships it causes people and countries along the Mekong down river from the dams. Beijing is interested only it its own people and its ever expanding industrial, business and farming sectors. …

    I’m sceptical about simplified and sensationalist explanations of environmental change. No doubt, the Chinese dams on the Mekong have all sorts of environmental and social impacts, but is there really good evidence to support the claim that they have significantly reduced dry-season flows downstream?

    Can anyone point us to some long term data on dry season stream flow that would illustrate this sudden decline? I’ve had a very quick search but cannot find any long term data. I did find this report from the Mekong River Commission that states:

    There is little evidence from the last 45 years [up to 2004] of data of any systematic changes in the hydrological regime of the Mekong. … There has been a lot of debate about the dry season hydrology of the mainstream and there is a widespread belief that there has been significant change due to upstream reservoir storage in China. Figure 4.8 shows the minimum daily discharge averaged over a sequence of 90-days in each year from 1960 to 2004 for Vientiane and Kratie. Such a “long duration” statistic can be regarded as an effective measure of dry season flow conditions from year to year. The data show that:

    * There is no evidence of any systematic change in the low-flow hydrology, either in terms of a long-term increase or decrease in dry season discharge.
    * The plot includes a range of ±2 standard deviations either side of the longterm average 90-day annual low flow. Years when the flows lie outside of this range may be considered exceptional, the most recent of these being 1999 (or the dry season following the poor flood season of 1998).
    * Current claims that the low-flow hydrology of 2004 was exceptional and far below “normal” appear unfounded and are probably linked to the fact that the previous years from 2000 onwards had above average flows during the dry season.

    I would be interested in seeing an analysis that extends to 2009, and which focuses on river flow at Chiang Saen and Luang Phrabang, where the relative influence of the Chinese section of the river is much greater.

    Interestingly, today the Bangkok Post has a report about water shortages throughout Thailand:

    An early drought is raising fears of a “water war” among rice farmers, the Royal Irrigation Department says. Large reservoirs and dams are only about 66% full, director-general Chalit Damrongsak said yesterday. The department fears there will not be enough irrigation water to last through the hot season. The country could not avoid a severe drought if water use exceeded earlier predictions, Mr Chalit said.

    Are the Chinese dams to blame for these shortages too?

    Comment by Mata Kuching — October 30, 2010 @ 11:48 AM | Reply

  12. Two disasters occurred at the Rajang River in a month with the people affected mainly rural folks. So rural supports for Taib’s government: down.

    Recent months, urban folks (esp. those with internet connections) are buzzed up with many explosive scandals of Taib’s ill-gotten gains by the Sarawak Report. So urban supports also down.

    The end is nigh for Taib, God is watching. HE lets Taib enjoy his good fortunes for 30 years and now HE is taking all back…

    Comment by ColourBlind — October 30, 2010 @ 12:38 AM | Reply

    • what are the two ‘disasters’ ?

      Comment by qwerty — October 30, 2010 @ 8:30 AM | Reply

    • They say the logjam was due due to natural forces, then the upper Rejang drought causing low river level was “natural cause” we cannot control.
      I say when the BN lose in the next general elections, it would certainly have been due to a “Natural Cause’, which they cannot control!

      Comment by francis ngu — October 30, 2010 @ 11:03 PM | Reply

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