Many of us here in Sarawak may have read about the huge amount of debris that is threatening the Three Gorges Dam in China.  And we have been appalled by the photos showing a huge swathe of the waters by the dam crammed full of debris, with cranes brought in to fish out a tangled mess, including shoes, bottles, branches and Styrofoam. It appears to be “a disaster in the making.”  But because the Three Gorges Dam is so far way in China, we shrug it off and feel consoled by the “safety” that our distance from China offers.

Rubbish at The Three Gorges Dam

Rubbish at Three Gorges Dam

Our complacence has now been rudely shaken by the recent Rejang River logjam which stretched for 50 kilometers. I shudder to think what might have been the consequences had a logjam of this magnitude occur upstream after the impoundment of the Bakun Dam.  Are the authorities ready to cope with such a calamity?

The Rajang River ( aka Rejang River)  or known as Sungai Rajang in Malay is located in northwest of Borneo island and it originates in the Iran Mountains. The river flows approximately 563 km to the South China Sea, making it the longest river in Malaysia. It is within the territories of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia by land mass.

On 6 October 2010, heavy rain in Putai and Nungun in upper Baleh is said to have caused a massive landslides that brought logs and debris down into the Baleh river, tributaries above Kapit, and then into the Rajang river.

The high water level and swift current in Baleh River and its tributaries also washed the logs and debris along their banks.

It was estimated that the volume of the logs and debris had exceeded 300, 000 cubic metres. This logjam had also affected the Igan river. The log debris, stretching 50 km long, reached Sibu on 8 October. It caused transportation difficulties for the people living along side the river as well as major ecological damage. Lots of dead fish were seen floating in the river.

Rejang River logjam - what a disaster!

The massive logjam in Kapit, Sarawak, rendering the river impassable to boats

An express boat caught in the logjam

What was the cause of the logjam? Was it an act of God? Or an act of nature? I would think human greed plays a big role. It doesn’t require a genius to figure out the cause of this disaster: indiscriminate land clearing and logging. These blatant activities have exposed our soil to erosion and left behind massive timber debris. I believe that heavy rain hitting the Balleh and Balui river basins caused massive flooding, erosion of river banks and landslides, flushing out the massive amount of timber debris into the Rejang River.

The map explains the events leading up to the logjam.

Events leading to the disaster

Sarawak’s Land Development Minister Datuk Seri Dr James Jemut Masing blamed unscrupulous timber companies for the disaster.

“There is still a lot of debris, making travel unsafe. There are also dead fish in the river. It’s an ecological disaster.”

Datuk Seri Dr James Masing, Sarawak's Minister for Land Development

Masing also disclosed that tons of fish had surfaced along the long stretch from Balleh to Sibu, which riverine folks scooped out easily.

He said that this was the third time in three years – the first was in 2008 at Sungai Gat and the second in Sungai Tunoh last year – that such an incident had happened and he feared that it would have far-reaching implications on the state, particularly on the timber industry.

He said the state government had laid down rules for logging but what was happening clearly showed that the rules were not being followed.

“I have gone around the world telling people that we are doing logging correctly. Now this happens. What will people think of us? We must take action against these unscrupulous timber companies.”

He said the authorities concerned must take their job more seriously and enforce the laws stringently.

It was a sad day indeed for Sarawak to catch worldwide attention for all the wrong reasons.  The disaster showcased the blatant disregard for the ecosystem of Sarawak. There will be a lot of finger-pointing but we Sarawakians all know who the real culprits are.  Hopefully our government can learn a lesson from this disaster before it is too late.

The China Three Gorges Corporation spends about 10 million yuan (about RM5 million) each year to clear the floating waste. And the cost for disposing the waste is expected to hit 3 million yuan this year. Nearly 3,000 tons of garbage are collected daily. In the Chongqing section of the Three Gorges, about a dozen mechanized boats are hauling the waste.

Movement for Change, Sarawak (MoCS) chief Francis Paul Siah said that the state government must not adopt the ostrich approach (observer only) by burying its head in the sand. According to him, the plunder and rape of Sarawak’s forests have gone on for far too long.

The ostrich approach

What plans does our government have in place to cope with the debris at Bakun Dam once it is fully operational?  Or are we just waiting for a major disaster to happen before we get off our butts?

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