BELAGA: Life is tough. That’s a fact the people in the district have learnt the hard way.
The impoundment of the Bakun Dam in the upper reaches of Rajang River since a month ago has not only changed the natural landscape but also impacted the people’s life socio-economically.
With very little water flowing from upstream, the river has shrunk and restricted navigational activities along the river.
Sandy banks and riverbed are visible and in some places, rocky beds are exposed, making navigation impossible for tugboats and express boats.
It has also become a joke in Belaga bazaar that people can play football on the riverbed.
Community leader Penghulu Neo Hood Joo, 62, said he had lived in Belaga all his life and had never come across sand banks or riverbeds until about two weeks ago.
Even in the driest months, between June and July, the water level was still higher than what it is now, he said.
Although he and other community leaders had been briefed on the impact of the impoundment and passed on the information to the ground, many were still caught by surprise when water level dropped drastically, he added.
“We didn’t expect the water level to be so low that it stops express boats and tongkang operations from Kapit to Belaga,” he said.
Neo said the government and experts should have anticipated this and built a road to link Kapit and Belaga before the impoundment began.
“Some shopkeepers still get their supplies through tongkang from Kapit because they do not have 4WDs to buy supplies from Bintulu, which is about four hours from here by logging road,” he said.
He said the locals also feared that the coming rainy season would hamper transportation by land as some parts of the logging tracks would become too muddy and slippery.
“What if we were also cut off by road as well due to bad weather? Are we ready to face the challenges ahead?” he asked.
Neo said people in Belaga who worked in Kapit and Sibu would have problems getting to their villages for Christmas next month because the express service had stopped.
“They will have to fork out extra expenses to return by land from Bintulu. This also means a longer journey home, from just three hours by express boat from Kapit to two days by express boat from Kapit to Sibu, then from Sibu to Bintulu by land or air.
“A trip home that used to cost RM50 or less is now up to RM200 per person,” he added.
All this would cause financial hardship to the people who were from low and medium-income groups, he said.
Neo said students studying at SMK Belaga would also face difficulty going back to their longhouses along the river.
“They can only use small longboats that will take a longer time to reach their villages compared to express boats. It is also dangerous because they have to navigate past rapids downstream,” he added.
There are about 30 longhouse villages along the river.
Echoing the same sentiment, Penghulu Nicholas Mering Kulleh, 52, said most villagers could not afford to buy life jackets which cost between RM30 and RM50 each.
“If there are five people in a family, that’s more than RM100 and the people, who are mainly self-sufficient farmers, cannot afford it,” he said.
He said the impoundment had already claimed two lives – one at Korea Rapids upriver and another near Punan Biau downriver.
“Those living along the river are putting their lives at risk whenever they go to Belaga bazaar because of rapids, rocky riverbeds, jutting logs and dead trees,” said the community leader, fondly known as Penghulu Nyalang.
Nyalang said he was also worried about sick villagers not being able to get help from Belaga Hospital due to the drying river.
“Life is tough. I am afraid it will be tougher in the coming days if the water level gets lower each day and there is not enough rain,” he added.
He urged the government to build roads connecting some of the villages to the logging road that connects Belaga to Bintulu.
A villager from Rumah Tanjong, William Liah, 43, said he used to catch three to four fish a day weighing a few kilogrammes each, but that had changed.
“It’s getting harder to catch fish as the fish have gone elsewhere,” he said, adding that he planted padi and caught fish to survive.
Showing a fish weighing about 4kg that he had just caught after a week, he said it would fetch him about RM90, which was just enough to buy fuel to return home from the Belaga baazar.
“Some of us used to catch a lot of fish like labang, baung, mengalan, empurau and tapah further upriver near the dam’s gate when the impoundment started. But that windfall was shortlived,” he lamented.
He said he was among the few villagers who dared to navigate through the rapids to sell fish and buy rations.
“It’s tough and risky, but do we have a choice? We still need to eat and live,” he said.
On Thursday, former environment adviser to the Sarawak government, Datuk Dr James Dawos Mamit, said water released from the dam should be about 150 cubic metres per second based on the Downstream Environment Assessment study done in the mid-1990s.
However, Sarawak Hidro was only releasing 110 cubic metres of water per second.