Currents by Sharon Chin 1

Two rivers meet in the village of Long Pasia, one the colour of black coffee, the other, milk tea. Further down from this nexus, a contraption bobs on the surface of the river. It looks precarious – a platform housing a slotted metal wheel, secured against the current by cables stretched across either bank.

It’s a floating hydro generator, and it can produce up to 3 kilowatts (kW) of power at full capacity.  Theoretically, that’s enough for 50 old-fashioned incandescent bulbs that need 60 watts (W) each, or 375 of the far more efficient LED bulbs that use only 8W to produce brighter light. You could run two and a half refrigerators (1200W each) instead, or four ricecookers (730W each), or 20 TVs (150W each). Your Macbook Air charger needs 45W, so you could plug in 66 of those at a time.

It isn’t perfect. A log might collide and get stuck, and wattage can fluctuate with water levels. During my visit, a pulley became slack, causing the lights in our homestay to flicker and click.

But I found an inexplicable beauty in this most practical, and not especially complicated, piece of technology. The white glow of each bulb seemed to hold the heartbeat of the river. I’d charged my iPhone with its power. At night I heard its low roar, flowing 50 feet from where I slept.

The Road to Long Pasia

The generator at Long Pasia is one of several micro hydroelectric projects by Lightup Borneo, an NGO founded by seasoned grassroots activist Ong BK and based in Penampang, Sabah. Since 2010, they have installed 13 water-powered generators across Borneo, and one in the Peninsula.

Lightup Borneo organizes frequent trips, open to anyone, to their project sites. In January, a small group of us travelled with him to the interiors of Sabah’s Sipitang district, which borders Sarawak on the west, and Kalimantan to the south.

Currents by Sharon Chin 3

Before Sabah Forest Industries (SFI) Sdn Bhd opened a logging road through the mountains in the late 90s, it was a week-long jungle trek from Long Pasia to the coastal town of Sipitang.

Today, the distance of 128km takes us eight hours by 4WD, on roads churned into slippery beds of mud by heavy rain and trucks bearing felled acacia trees to SFI’s paper mills.

Richard, our driver from Long Pasia, navigates the giant ruts and rotting bridges like a boss – he’s been making this trip a few times a week for more than a decade.

Halfway through our journey, we pass a truck stuck deep in the mud. It’s an omen. Not long after, at the foot of a wicked incline, we share the same fate.

There was nothing for it but get down and tug. Staring down the wrong end of an accelerating truck, my hands raw from pulling a towing strap, I felt buzzed with adrenalin – exhilarated, proud, even.

“Now you’ve had the true Long Pasia experience,” said Richard, after we’d successfully plucked ourselves from the mire. “Tourists love it, slipping and sliding. But for us, orang kampung…”

It was evening when we stopped at Batu Nuduk, a small village where Lightup Borneo recently installed a 3kW gravity fed hydro, a system where water piped downhill creates a high-pressured jet of water that turns the turbine. We sat at the home of Tinos Benut, who had plenty to say about the road and urged us to put it on Facebook.

Currents by Sharon Chin 4“How many billions has the government profited from this land? The companies, corporations, they’ve taken the timber and everything in this forest where we live. They’ve shot the deer, eaten it all, and left only the bones. If the bones had something in them at least! How will we survive on empty bones?”

In the 70s and 80s, timber wealth made Sabah one of the richest states in Malaysia. The town of Sandakan even boasted of having the world’s highest concentration of millionaires. Today, very little unlogged forest remains. Most of Sipitang has been designated Class II Commercial Forest. SFI holds a 99-year concession to manage 276,623 hectares of it, planting and harvesting fast-growing crops for paper pulp. It expires in 2095. Meanwhile, Tinos says that the workers contracted to maintain the road, who are lodging at one of his houses, have done little except delay the rent.

Night fell, and Tinos’ wife came out to hang a light bulb above our heads. As we took off for the last leg to Long Pasia, I looked back and saw it burning brightly in the dark, the true dark you never see in cities. On the way, we passed a road roller parked to one side. It was covered in weeds.

To The Source

Lightup Borneo projects are funded by private donations, each hydro generator costing between RM5,000 to RM20,000. It’s not the generator parts that are expensive, but the connectors: pipes to bring water down from the source to turn the turbine, and cables to carry electricity to buildings.

Long Pasia’s floating generator is efficient because its turbine is turned directly by the river that flows behind the houses it powers. This means no pipes, and shorter cables.

Not every village sits on the mouth of a river. A recent settlement of 13 houses, Long Pinasat is an hour’s trek through the jungle from Long Pasia. When Lightup Borneo installed a gravity fed hydro there last year, villagers steered half a kilometer of coiled pipe down the river like a raft, then carried it through the jungle.

When we visited, the intake filter had become clogged. Bapak Selutan Sakai, a Lundayeh elder from Long Pinasat, led us upstream to the water source. Thick PVC pipe marked our trail, like a rubber snake asleep on the jungle floor.

Currents by Sharon Chin 2I saw wonders. Delicate lace-like lichens so pale they seemed to glow in the dimness. Fluted fungi growing like ears out of rotting wood. On a moss covered rock, a leech stretched valiantly for my blood. Bapak moved through the forest with utter surety, while the rest of us stumbled on like the strangers we were. There were creeping plants with long spikes to watch out for, and a sort of tropical ivy that could give you a painful rash.

At last, we came to the source, a beautiful spot where water tumbled swiftly over rocks. After clearing the filter of dead leaves, Bapak straightened to speak. He outlined how NGOs had supplied running water, and now electricity, to Long Pinasat.

Currents by Sharon Chin 5“We are happy with the help of NGOs. It’s not that we don’t believe in our rulers. But they’re slow. Who knows, at my age, will I die before we get what we need?”

Back at his house, Bapak told us he’d been a Ranger during the Konfrontasi era, fighting alongside Gurkhas against Indonesia. And yet, he doesn’t hold a MyKad, only a red I.C. after he handed in his old, temporary green one from the 60s. He cannot apply for a bank account, driver’s license or passport, and must pay full rates for treatment at public hospitals.

He recounted how, perhaps a decade ago, during an election year, someone approached him with an offer: a MyKad in exchange for RM200 and his vote. Desperate, he agreed, but when he arrived in Sipitang, the agent had no more MyKads to trade. Numerous appeals to Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara have also been in vain.

Water, electricity – he has lived to see these supplied. But 52 years since the formation of Malaysia, the larger currents of nationhood and citizenship continue to pass him by.

Connections

The Bukit Bintang of Long Pasia is a hill where you can get a bird’s eye view of the village – the church at the center, schools nearby, and the chief’s house on a hill at one end.

At the other end, near the airstrip and military base, there is a hybrid solar farm built by the Ministry of Education in 2013. It is capable of producing 55kW, enough to power the entire village of 60 houses. But because it’s part of a RM700 million Federal government scheme to bring electricity to rural schools in Sabah, it only supplies the teachers’ quarters, student hostel and kindergarten.

The sight of the underutilized solar farm, draped in still unfaded Malaysian flags, its controller boxes stenciled with ‘Hak Kerajaan Malaysia’, was sad and puzzling. All the power was there, it was just disconnected from local needs.

Currents by Sharon Chin 6

Meanwhile, Lightup Borneo’s work continues. On our way back to Sipitang, we stopped at Kampung Iburu for the night, where there was a townhall meeting to discuss implementing a micro hydro system.

The entire village came to listen to Ong give his presentation. The diesel generator had been turned on to power the lights and sound in the community hall, and its loud hum could be heard throughout. In the interiors, diesel can cost up to RM6 per litre.

Finally, Ong asked the villagers to indicate their interest in the project. At first shy and reserved, a wave of energy began to build in the room. Women asked about ricecookers, fridges and TVs. Someone asked about powering musical instruments for the church.

Before the night was over, they had formed a working committee to bring power to their village.


This is the first in a series of stories about water in Malaysia by Sharon Chin. Research for this article was carried out with support from Krishen Jit ASTRO Fund.


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