21/09/2007 (Bernama), KINABATANGAN - "This river gave me my livelihood and it also helped me to raise my children. But now everything have changed, there is not much prawn and fish in it," said 70-year-old Singgong Musa with a sigh.
The 560km-long Sungai Kinabatangan, is the second longest river in the country. It is of considerable importance in Sabah as it serves as a vital communication route for several villages in Kinabatangan district apart from being an important water catchment area.
Sungai Kinabatangan is also an important tourism product, which serves as an income-earner for local residents.
Unfortunately, the river's environment is fast deteriorating. No thanks to activities originating from operations of huge oil palm estates located on both sides of its banks.
Singong, a resident of Kampung Sukau, is among the fishermen whose livelihood is badly hit due to the severe pollution in Sungai Kinabatangan.
"The catch is gradually depleting. We used to get 15 to 20 kg of prawns and fish a day and we can earn more than RM1,000 a month. But now our catch is a mere five kg daily.
"Earning from that amount of catch is definitely not enough to cover the costs of boat fuel and repairs made to damaged fish traps," a disappointed Singgong told Bernama here recently.
All fishermen in Kampung Sukau use the 'bubu', which is a basket-shaped fish trap made from steel wires instead of that made from bamboo strips. This is to reduce the felling of trees in the forest that fringes their villages.
This shows that the villagers are aware of the need to conserve the environment, in contrast to the lackadaisical attitude shown by the operators of the palm oil industry that dump palm oil effluents from the processing mills into the river.
PALM OIL INDUSTRY
Kinabatangan district is spread over 660,500 hectares of land and almost half of it -- 345,000 hectares, is covered by oil palm estates that give the revenue of about RM2.0 billion a year.
There are 32 palm oil processing mills operating in the district, where all discharge their factory effluents into the river after treating these wastes according to the Department of Environment (DOE) regulations.
Unfortunately, several of these mills including that privately-owned did not adhere to DOE's guidelines when it comes to treating and discharging the effluents.
The situation is made worse when the estate owners planted the oil palm trees too close to the riverbanks, disregarding the regulation that prohibits such activity on river reserve land.
This causes chemicals from the fertilisers used to flow into Sungai Kinabatangan whenever it rains or floods.
According to the WWF-Malaysia manager for the Kinabatangan corridor programme, Darrel Webber, there are 30 palm oil processing mills operating in Kinabatangan's water catchment zone.
This represents 23 percent of Sabah's total water catchment area, which also the main water supplier to Sandakan.
He said effluents from these palm oil processing mills contaminate the water in Sungai Kinabatangan. This situation is further compounded by chemicals from fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides used in the oil palm estates that seep into the river.
The effluents and chemicals have not only adversely affected Sungai Kinabatangan, but also the Marine Biodiversity Global Centre and Coral Reefs Triangle in Laut Sulu as the river flows into this sea.
Speaking to Bernama here recently, Webber said it is estimated that 237,728 tonnes of inorganic fertilisers are used annually for oil palm trees spread over 190,000 hectares area located along the river.
"Not all of the fertilisers used are absorbed by the oil palm trees. If 10 percent of these fertilisers remain, that means 23,773 tonnes of residual fertilisers end up in Sungai Kinabatangan each year," he said.
"That is why the palm oil industry operators should adhere to regulations concerning the disposal of effluents from their processing mills and not plant the oil palm trees too close to the river reserve area.
Sabah Environmental Protection Association president, Datuk Sue Jayasuria, concurs with Webber's views.
Dr Jayasuria calls for the relevant authorities to stop activities that pollute the river as these have greatly affected the life of villagers who depended on the river for their livelihood.
LOOK FOR OTHER ALTERNATIVES
The severe pollution at Sungai Kinabatangan has gained the attention of Sabah's Minister for Tourism, Culture and Environment Datuk Masidi Manjun who went to view for himself the gravity of the situation at the river last Aug 27 and 28.
Shocked by the severity of the pollution, Masidi issued a directive for all oil palm estate owners along the river to look for other alternatives instead of discharging their factory effluents into the river.
Masidi said he understands that other disposal methods may be costly but insists that the operators immediately look for other effluent-disposal ways and not to give priority to profit alone.
The state government would not allow pollution of the river to remain unchecked, said Masidi, adding that he would make surprise inspections to ensure that the palm oil processing mills adhere to the directive.
The deteriorating water quality in Sungai Kinabatangan is not only caused by effluents from the palm oil industry but also by irresponsible parties who dredge sand illegally from the river.
The illegal sand-dredging is believed to be carried out in the upstream areas of the river and is discovered after Kampung Sukau residents came across a sand-laden barge moving downstream since several months back.
This activity causes the riverbanks to slip, causing damage to the fishermen's fish traps. The sediments also made water in Sungai Kinabatangan murky, affecting the river's eco-system.