Flashback #Star50: When the taps went dry


News of the day: The long dry spell was front-page news and the talk of the town was the ‘rainmaker’ who was brought in to help solve the matter.News of the day: The long dry spell was front-page news and the talk of the town was the ‘rainmaker’ who was brought in to help solve the matter.

IT was a story about the rain gods, or rather their absence, in Melaka.

And you must hear it from M. Veera Pandiyan, who retired in 2016 as an associate editor of The Star.

Thirty years ago, in 1991, he was our Melaka correspondent, and I was his 19-year-old stringer.

A state correspondent is a lone reporter who knows his state like the back of his hand.

A stringer, especially when you are 19, is a part-time reporter who is greener than a greenhorn.

This story is about what Veera and I went through when we faced the 1991 Melaka drought.

“There was almost no rain in 1990. I kept telling my HQ (headquarters) to stand by for the worst drought ever in Melaka,” said Veera.

The panic button was pressed when Durian Tunggal dam got so dry that people could drive across the hardened mud at the bottom of the lake and decomposing fish of more than a metre long was a sight to behold.

By the following year, taps in Melaka went dry.

Veera would wake before dawn and wait with as many pails as he could get from the water tanker before going to work.

“Some of those tankers used to carry palm oil, so sometimes, little clumps of gunk were in the water. It was just something you had to accept,” he said.

I was a tad luckier, for I lived in the heritage enclave, along Jalan Hang Jebat (then called Jonker Street), where many houses had wells.

Pushing a trolley full of containers, I would approach my neighbours and asked to be allowed to draw water from their wells.

Well water is crystal clear up to a point. As we raised bucket after bucket of water, the well’s level dropped until the sloshing kicked up all the muck at the bottom.

Then the owner would tell us to stop and we went looking for another well.

It took many hours for a depleted well to fill up again.

Every day after work, I went well-hunting. This went on for about a year. I had to make three exhausting trips a day for my family’s cooking, washing and bathing needs.

Veera said the state was desperate by then.

And that was when he found out that the Melaka government was quietly talking to a foreign company – a rainmaker who said he could bring enough rain to fill Durian Tunggal dam to a certain degree for RM3.2mil.

CLICK TO ENLARGECLICK TO ENLARGE

“I told a state official I was going to write about it. He told me to wait but I said no, I would go ahead and write,” he said.

Since Veera had already sniffed it out, they had to call for a press conference the following day.

The foreign rainmaker joined the press conference, explaining how he would coax the ether, or qi, in the atmosphere to bring rain clouds.

“You must realise there was no Internet back then. I had to look up in the books to see what he meant by ‘ether’.

“He said it was something like qi,” said Veera.

When the foreigner was asked whether he considered himself a “hi-tech bomoh”, the man said yes.

That rainmaker also announced that his qi-coaxing machine was already installed in Melaka.

Veera sussed out exactly where the machines were set up. They were on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in Melaka then.

He instructed me to find a way to get to the roof and take pictures of the equipment.

I managed to do just that. How did I do it? That’s a story for another day, perhaps.

As a young journalist who was often broke, I had only a 24-shot roll of film in my camera. And to save even more money, I only printed a few shots in black-and-white to send to The Star headquarters.

Looking back, I wished I had printed more images in colour.

My photos of the supposedly sophisticated tools of the rainmaker, published prominently in The Star, showed hammered hollow cones of galvanised tin sheets, affixed on sawn-off steel chairs with electric motors to spin them slowly.

One cone was fixed on a camera tripod. That was all there was to it.

That rainmaker was furious with us. He called us “a bunch of dogs” and “disgusting pigs”.

But unsurprisingly, the dam was never filled up within the promised time.

As far as Veera knew, that rainmaker did not get paid, fortunately.

The state government later signed a deal with Johor to get water diverted into the dam.

When Veera’s story and my pictures were published on Aug 14 and Aug 22, 1991, it became the talk of the town with people in my neighbourhood expressing hurt that their salvation from the longest drought in living memory was a rainmaker using qi.

The experience remains indelible in my mind as an example of how investigative journalism can help the public.

Curious to see more features like this? Visit Starchive on our anniversary website to discover more stories through the decades.

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