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Dam builder denies responsibility as logjam chokes river in Malaysian Borneo

  • Tons of wood debris has clogged up the Baleh and Rajang rivers in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
  • The logjam originated in the headwaters of the Baleh, where a hydroelectric dam is currently under construction and logging activity is being carried out nearby.
  • The logjam originated in the headwaters of the Baleh, where a hydroelectric dam is currently under construction and logging activity is being carried out nearby.
  • But the state-owned utility building dam denies responsibility, pointing to logging upstream.

Tons of logging debris is choking rivers in Malaysian Borneo, devastating local wildlife and cutting off water supplies to 200,000 urban residents.

The logjam, which has been described as a “tsunami of wood” by local media, occurred Aug. 22 in the Baleh area of Sarawak state. The Baleh River is particularly affected, with residents sharing photos of the river and its tributaries clogged with logs. Multiple organizations, including WWF, have called for an immediate investigation, and for the culprits to be held accountable.

“WWF-Malaysia calls on the Sarawak government to investigate and haul the errant parties to court for causing destruction to the environment in Upper Baleh, which is an important water catchment for Kapit, Sibu, Sarikei and Mukah divisions,” the organization wrote in an Aug. 23 statement.

WWF has also called for the companies responsible for the logjam to pay for cleanup costs.

Timber along the banks of Rajang River, Sarawak. Image by MyBukit via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

This is the second major logjam this year in this part of Sarawak, known as the Kapit division. Tons of waste timber and debris from logging zones have been blocking the Baleh River since January, restricting the movements of 1,000 residents of the villages of Long Keboho, Naha Jalei, Naha Nyalong, Long Bulan and Long Jawa, who rely on boats to travel.

Activists and members of parliament have linked the “rampant logging” to the ongoing construction of the 1,285-megawatt Baleh hyrdoelectric dam.

Sarawak Energy Bhd, the state-owned electricity utility building the dam, issued a statement Aug. 23 denying responsibility. The company says drone surveillance has shown the fault lies with loggers 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) upstream from its site.

The Sarawak forestry department issued its own statement Aug. 26 saying an accumulation of wood debris at the Baleh dam, washed downriver by heavy rains, had caused the logjam. “An extreme downpour of more than 100 mm [4 inches] on [Aug. 21] triggered the movement of the debris and the massive surface runoff,” the agency said.

Local opposition politicians say the state is looking for excuses to avoid taking necessary action.

“They always blame the rain,” Abun Sui Anyit, information chief of one of Sarawak’s local opposition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, told Mongabay. “But we’ve had rain since time immemorial. It must be rampant logging activities.”

Environmental activist John Bampa told Mongabay, “Normally, when a dam is built and there are timber concessions around the area, the loggers know that those concessions won’t exist for much longer so they start chopping down all the trees. Without taking the environment into consideration, they throw the unused part of the log into the river, so when it rains everything is swept further downriver and this creates a logjam.”

Boats at Kapit town. Kapit is an important center for a large area in the interior of Sarawak, but it has seen two major logjams this year. Image by Audrey Low via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Sarawak’s deputy chief minister and Baleh assemblyman, James Masing, has also blamed loggers and called for a reduction in timber licenses and concessions. However, the opposition has been quick to point out that another major logjam in 2010 saw the Sarawak-based political alliance GPS promise to cut back on timer licenses and concessions. Masing, who was the land development minister at that time, promised to take “action against these unscrupulous timber companies.”

“That is what GPS said last time and they haven’t followed through,” Abun said. “These are mere words, this logjam is evidence that they don’t do what they say they will.

“I am sure they are taking more logs than other logging activities because a dam is being built,” he added. “There aren’t many trees left in Sarawak to log because of the amount of timber licenses which have been granted over the years. This is what happens when you give them access. They just want an easy profit out of this.”

The 2010 logjam clogged up a 50-km (30-mi) stretch of the Rajang River, killing hundreds of thousands of fish. There are already reports of dead fish and dead wild boar in and around the Baleh River.

“Filling the rivers with soil reduces the river’s oxygen levels which kills the fish,” Bampa said. “Covering the surface with logs means light can’t reach the plankton and so the fish have nothing to eat. No plankton means no fish, and no fish means people will start to have a shortage of protein.

“The sanctity of people has not been considered, and the state government should take responsibility for this,” he added.

The Sarawak state government has announced plans to form a task force investigating the incident. The state forestry department did not respond to a request for comment regarding how residents and Sarawak’s environment will be protected from future logjams.

Banner image: Illegal logging at a river in Sarawak in 2015. Image by Rettet den Regenwald e.V./Rainforest Rescue via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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