Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sabah : Thousands plead for water as wells run dry

Thousands of villagers in Silabukan near Lahad Datu are having to choose between buying food or water.

Their wells have slowly started to run dry as the drought that has shrunk the state's river to a trickle, lowered waterlines at reservoirs and sparked several forest fires, continues into its second month.

The effect has been startling with withered brown weeds replacing the lush green grass carpeting many areas here.

Adding to the villagers' distress is the drop in the water table compared to a few years ago. However, that drop is unrelated to the current drought.

"We need clean water to survive… we need it urgently. I’m begging our leaders: give us water," said Mohd Ahmad, the village head of Silabukan Peringkat 3.

Their plight comes as the state government today ordered the Water Department to commence rationing water supply throughout the state, which is reeling from the effects of El-Nino. Forecasters expect it to ease towards the end of April when some rain is expected.

Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman said yesterday that the water situation in the state "is getting critical. We don't want to burden people but this (rationing) must be done", he said in a statement.

The east coast villagers' plea for water supply, however, has hit a snag as they do not have an officially appointed village chief to write to the department for aid.

Salty for consumption

Mohd claims he was verbally appointed by Tungku Assemblyman, Ustaz Datuk Mohd Suhaili, last year. He, however, does not have an appointment letter authorising him to act on behalf of his fellow villagers.

"Most of us are poor farmers. We cannot afford to buy clean water from Lahad Datu town. The suppliers charge us RM150 for 550 gallons of water. It only lasts for about a week or less… it depends on how many people are in the family.

"We can't afford it… our income from our fields is barely enough to feed us."

The cost of living in the east coast of the state has risen in tandem with the fuel prices and global economic changes. It has seriously affected villagers to the extent that they are torn between buying food or clean water.

Although the Silabukan River is just a stone's throw, its proximity to the sea makes its water too salty for consumption.

In addition, fears linger among villagers that the river has not recovered from pollution by oil palm factories along the river.

"We don't dare use the river water as there are three oil palm factories along the river. Several years ago, they dumped their waste and polluted the river. It was covered with dark black oil, all the fish died. There was no fish to catch for the whole year; we lost our source of food that year," Mohd said.

Though the quality of water has improved after the Department of Environment took action against the factories after complaints, most of those living in the area still fear consuming it even if taken from further upstream.

The Silabukan smallholder settlement scheme was started in 1970 as part of the state government's effort to eradicate poverty in the district. There are around 3,000 residents occupying Perinkat 1-4 and several thousands more in Perinkat 5-8.

Over the past four decades its population has grown more than 200% and its residents now include those from neighboring countries. It is one of the largest and fastest growing smallholder schemes in the district.

Lacking basic necessities

However, four decades on, successive state governments have for the most part ignored the settlement. It remains poorly maintained with potholed roads and no drainage. Residents rely solely on rainwater which they collect in large drums for consumption.

As with all such underdeveloped settlements, politics is never far from the residents' minds during times of hardship such as the present drought.

Sudirman Bawiro moved in when the settlement started in 1970 while his neighbor, Lakson Injil, came in 1978. Both have worked on their 15-acre plots since then.

Lakson, who claimed that he was once a member of Umno Youth, said he has since joined Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which has promised them better living conditions.

"I left because after four decades we are still without basic necessities. Now we not only don't have piped water but have to beg for it to survive from those staying in town. We, too ,are human," he said.

Sudirman believes that the ruling Barisan National government has chosen the wrong people as leaders.

"Be brave enough to fight for the welfare of the villagers. The government’s 1Malaysia slogan is 'People First, Performance Now' so give us clean water first," he said.

It is understood that the state government has identified several water catchment areas in Ulu Tungku area and work has commenced on several reservoirs to store water. However, the projects are only expected to be completed in the next couple of years.

courtesy of FreeMalaysiaToday

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