Conserving the ‘Lifeblood’ of Sarawak


For many of Sarawak’s rural population, their livelihoods are dependent on the river systems that flow throughout the State.

There are 55 navigable rivers in Sarawak with a combined length of 3,300 km, providing an inland waterway transport system for those living in the interior and coasts that are inaccessible by road, whether through the use of express boat and ferry services or utilising their own boats.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this transport system, when used as a greener alternative to land transport, is able to achieve greater fuel conservation, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and cut down road and vehicle maintenance costs.

Aerial view of Rajang River. Photo by Lukman Haqeem Alen for WWF-Malaysia

River transport also helps improve connectivity between rural and urban areas, thus enabling the rural population to take advantage of employment opportunities, contribute to the local economy and even feel less isolated from other communities.

The local economy can include tourism, with rivers suitable for community-based ecotourism, allowing locals to earn additional income and help raise awareness of sustainable river management.

However, as Sarawak progresses, rivers in the State have been negatively impacted by changes brought about by human interference, which lead to damage in river systems and deterioration of water quality.

These changes directly result in threats not only to rivers in Sarawak but also in Malaysia; the most common as cited by WWF-Malaysia are river pollution; physical alteration of river systems; destruction of highland catchment areas; overexploitation of fisheries resources; and introduction of exotic species into riverine environment.

Therefore, overcoming these threats require the collaboration of every stakeholder, including public and private sectors, non-governmental organisations and the community.

On the part of the Sarawak Government, various initiatives have been implemented to restore the quality of rivers in the State.

One key initiative is the Kuching City-based Sewerage System that has been in operation since 2015 with its first phase involving commercial and industrial buildings.

Sarawak River, as seen in Kuching City

According to Assistant Minister of Urban Planning, Land Administration and Environment YB Datu Haji Len Talif Salleh, rivers around Kuching City has improved as a result of the system, despite the decline in water quality that is still detected at Padungan River and Bedil River.

“We believe the water quality of the rivers, especially around Kuching City, will be restored after the second phase of the system, which involves residential areas,” he said after opening a seminar in Kuching in March 2020.

The second phase, he elaborated, when fully operational would see domestic sewage discharge treated at the centralised sewerage system before being released into the river.

To date, of the 22 major rivers found in Sarawak, most are categorised as slightly polluted in terms of water quality. Those categorised as badly polluted include Padungan River, Bintangor River, Bedil River, and Tabuan River in Kuching, and Miri River in Miri.

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