TANAH RATA (Bernama): River water is a vital resource for the orang asli community.
However, almost 500 residents at Pos Menson about 40km from here can no longer depend on Sungai Bertam, which flows just next to their village.
The water quality at the river has drastically deteriorated, believed to be due to commercial agricultural activities in the area for over 25 years.
Worse still, water from the highlands brings down mud and agricultural waste during the rainy season, causing the river to become shallow, dirty, and yellowish "teh tarik" in colour.
The water is also believed to contain chemicals from the use of scheduled poisons and chemical fertilisers in agricultural areas such as Ringlet and Bertam Valley in the Cameron Highlands.
This also has a direct impact on the orang asli community in other areas, especially those living near Jalan Ringlet-Sungai Koyan that relies on the river.
A check by Bernama at the Pos Menson orang asli settlement found that their lives and livelihoods have been severely affected, especially in terms of catching fish, as almost all the species of fish in the river are becoming extinct.
Pos Menson Tok Batin (headman), Rahim Arkom, 58, said Sungai Bertam began deteriorating badly after 2000 as land nearby began being used for illegal commercial farming activities.
He also said that the river is used by residents of five villages in the area.
"The river water has become yellow and muddy, so much so there is almost no trace of fishes like the 'tengas', 'krai' and 'sebarau' in the river. Now, if we want to eat fish, we will have to 'fish' for them at the market," he said.
Rahim said apart from that, wild animals in the forest such as the mousedeer, porcupine, and barking deer are increasingly hard to find.
The Tok Batin who took over the reins of the community just two years ago, said a villager suffered hair loss after bathing in the contaminated river sometime in 2006.
"After the case, children in the village rarely bathe in the river, as we told them not to bathe there as the water is dirty and filled with hazardous substances," he said, adding that the issue had been brought up with the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa), but there was no response or action taken.
Mat Bah Dengkil, 53, from Kampung Rantau, said people in the village no longer used water from the river due to health reasons and instead relied on a gravitational water system using water from a stream called Sungai Kelok.
"I do not remember when was the last time I bathed or fished there (Sungai Bertam). Before the 90s the river was very clean, but now, I will not allow my grandchildren to bathe there. It's safer for them to take a shower at home through the piped water," said Mat Bah, who has 12 children and 25 grandchildren.
Rosnah Isam, 51, from Kampung Gelnas hopes that the candidate who wins in the Cameron Highlands parliamentary by-election will bring up this issue in Parliament.
There are five villages in Pos Menson, namely Kampung Panggak, Kampung Rantau, Kampung Gelnas, Kampung Batu Kusir and Kampung Berengis.
The orang asli community represents about 22% of the 32,048 voters in the Cameron Highlands parliamentary constituency, while 34% are Malays, 30% Chinese and 14% Indians.
The by-election on Jan 26 will witness a four-cornered contest among Pakatan Harapan's M. Manogaran, Ramli Mohd Nor of Barisan Nasional and independent candidates, Sallehudin Ab Talib and Wong Seng Yee. - Bernama