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.
It 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.
“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.
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.