Unholy mess


The sight of thousands upon thousands of logs mingled with debris and mud clogging up Sungai Rajang for as far as the eye could see was reminiscent of scenes from the 2004 tsunami in Aceh. Even without the floating corpses and cars that accompanied the earlier event, it was not hard to comprehend that what happened in Sarawak last week was a disaster whose scale, though yet to be fully measured, was huge. Little wonder that local residents flocked to the river banks to look at the strange sight. Elders described it as a portent of the end of the world, God’s punishment for mankind’s rapacity. A combination of heavy rains upriver, denuded ground and a massive landslide resulted in this — a 250km logjam starting from Ulu Baleh to Sibu — nearly half the length of the mighty Rajang, Malaysia’s longest river. The logjam cut off Kanowit, Song and Kapit from Sibu because express boat services could not traverse the river safely.

The sheer flood and mud flow killed fish and polluted the river, and may possibly affect the peat-swamp-rich area of the delta. If not recovered, the logs will wash out to sea and continue their destruction there. A fully grown tree can suck up five tonnes of water. It is for this reason that trees are described as nature’s great flood mitigator. Without them, every time it rained heavily, water would hurtle downstream and flood the area there.

Whether further investigation proves this to be a natural or man-made disaster, the fact is that this is an environmental calamity. How is it possible for an entire mountain to collapse from the beating of days of heavy rains? Where did the logs come from that formed the initial debris dam that then broke and swept its deadly detritus downstream?

 These questions have been implied by Baleh assemblyman Datuk Seri Dr James Masing, who has acknowledged that the area upstream is heavily logged. Heavy rain may be an “act of God”, and humankind might be helpless in preventing it. But, for the trees that are felled and the ground laid bare, humankind must take responsibility. Eighty per cent of Sarawak’s 12.3 million hectares is supposed to be covered by forests. The Sarawak Forest Department’s remote-sensing system should gauge the state of forested areas to see whether what remains corresponds with legitimate logging activities. Perhaps, too, it’s time to tighten laws, so that it is not possible to run out of forest cover, even by legitimate means.

We have been warned.