(Article contributed by a friend of Stop Kaiduan Dam)
I was in Timpangoh the other day and I was particularly impressed with Nousi, and his grasp of the scope of the situation, the environmental and social impact the dam will have and I hope he was able to get some of his knowledge into the heads of those who attended. Simply being against the dam is not enough, we must understand what is happening to the environment, and ultimately to us and our quality of life – and that of our future generations. We do of course all agree that we need water, but what about thinking about minimising spills and leaks, and adopting a more environmentally friendly attitude towards the usage of water before we head towards another major destruction of the environment; even more dangerous so without proper studies?
Sometimes I am a bit confused, but does not Malaysia want to attain “developed nation” status by 2020? A quick look around developed nations shows that they are actually doing their utmost to protect and “repair” their environment, and looking towards alternative sources for power, implement draconian laws to prevent people from littering and instilling a real reuse / recycle culture. I am obviously particularly thinking about Germany. Malaysia seems to be doing exactly the contrary. Massive destruction of the environment wherever you look, and if you can: only one-way usage, then throw away! Even the environment seems to fall under the one-way and throw away category nowadays.
But back to the Kaiduan Dam. I was particularly interested in hearing that the dam is going to be built by a private company. A company wants to make money, full stop. How will this reflect on the customer? Is water not a basic necessity that we all need? Should it not be the government with its resources (taxpayer money included) that provides water to all households? If water is distributed through a private company, will it become a service like Astro, or broadband internet access and the like – meaning something for which we have to pay probably high installation fees, then monthly subscription fees, plus usage fees? Can we have different sets of water pressure as payable options? A tab for drinking water, and another for our washing machines and other appliances? Water on demand: only send an SMS and pay by credit card? Prepayment of course! And suddenly not everybody can afford water any more because it becomes a private and somewhat exclusive service that might be too expensive for certain people to have.
And does the need for water justify the wanton destruction of some of Sabah’s most spectacular landscapes, their cultural and historical significance? The site proposed (and supposedly uninhabited) may well be the last area in Sabah were one can still find traditional Dusun houses, and a nearly unchanged traditional life-style. And I am sure the natural environment hides still a few surprises and discoveries of flora & fauna yet to be studied. Is Sabah not well known for its high endemism?
And how are the people who are affected by this project going to be compensated for their ancestral land, their sources of income and their ways of life? Is the government paying the company to buy the people’s lands (meaning ultimately the taxpayer who later pays extra for the water), or is the company buying up the land with their own funds and trying to recuperate that cost with the sales of water?
Who is coming up for the loss of income for the locals who are displaced by the dam? Is the government, or the company paying their food supplies while they replant rice and wait until it matures and can be harvested? Is the company paying for the loss of income of tobacco, rubber and other cash crops? As long as it takes to grow those crops until their first harvest? Is there any such commitment?
Will the displaced be given appropriate compensation for their land? Will they get new land titles? Will the lots be sufficiently big so that they can start a new life? Will they have sufficient funds from the operation to build new homes or will they be given Wong Kwok style flats and told to integrate into our modern consumer society? Will the displaced locals get training and apprenticeships so that they can change from subsistence farmers to some “real, modern” job? Have the locals been asked if they wanted to leave their ancestral lands and go and work in a city on an 8-5 job six days a week?
Why is Sabah Parks keeping mum on the subject? The proposed artificial lake supposedly does not have any impact on the Crocker Range National Park, but any such man-made and sudden body of water necessarily changes the local climate and entrains changes in the local flora & fauna, in the behaviour of wildlife and maybe even geology and certainly in a score of other areas only a panel of experts can determine. I am sure Sabah Parks must look at this project with some apprehension. Are there not many examples from Sarawak, and some from West Malaysia too? Just take the river ecology for a starter: as most of the middle Papar River will be flooded many aquatic species will find their environment changed and maybe uninhabitable. Going upstream is not an option because at the lake inlet the upper Papar River is quite different from its middle stream. Downstream won’t be an option either. Only option: die out; and with Sabah’s high endemism there are bound to be species of fish and amphibians yet to be discovered in the area now under the threat of a permanent lake.
The list could go on ad infinitum, but I wish only to raise one more point here: tourism. Donggongon is “the Gate to the Crocker Range National Park”. The Penampang District has one huge asset for future culture, adventure and nature tourism, but it is also virtually its only asset. I am actually a bit taken aback that so far nobody has made better use of it. Everything is there: local cultures and the adventure of getting there, the adventure of meeting the locals, of communication and exchange, the promise of a unique, and for most travellers probably once-in-a-life-time experience. There is not even any need for any fancy and costly tourism infrastructure. There are other countries in the world with rainforest, where you pay exorbitant tourism dollars to visit the jungle and its indigenous people as they are, you pay for sleeping on a floor of split bamboo, eating with your hands, sharing a glass of some local brew with everybody in the village, but not so in Malaysia. Here it is sometimes as if the locals are simply not there; they are ignored at best, and those few agencies that offer trekking in the Crocker Range stay for the most time clear of local homes and their inhabitants. Why, what is wrong with them, are they “too primitive”? Did it ever occur to local tour operators that tourists might actually want to get into contact with the locals, live, if only for a few days, their age old life style, that there are travellers out there that see in their holiday an opportunity for learning about foreign cultures?
A couple of years back the CAN acronym was floating around: Culture, Adventure & Nature based tourism. Sabah has it all – oh well, by now “culture” means a fantasy “ethnic dress” for door openers in the more expensive hotels and resorts in and around KK; “adventure” is offered in the form of the climb of Mt Kinabalu; and Sepilok has to do for an excuse of “nature”. Penampang has real CAN potential, but with the proposed dam this one asset, this huge potential can be effectively destroyed forever. Sure, someone will soon come up and label Donggongon’s Mega Long Mall as one of KK’s new tourism destinations, just as the Mayor of KK touts 1Borneo as Sabah’s latest tourism attraction. Do people here really believe that travellers fly around half the globe just for shopping in Sabah? Do we really have nothing better to offer than shopping malls that at best mimic poorly the shopping malls the travellers have in their own country of origin?
This dam thus not only severely impacts the environment, but the socio-economic consequences for the locals will be catastrophic. It will take a generation if not longer until the environment adapts to the new lake, and the displaced people to their new way of life before any resemblance of normalcy returns. And the Penampang District will lose its greatest – and virtually only – asset forever.
To be against this dam does not equal to be against the ruling government or development. To be against it means understanding the dire consequences to our future quality of life.