A view overlooking the Bakun dam powerhouse and its spillway.
Almost 20 years ago in 1997 to 1999, some 11,000 people from 15 longhouses bid goodbye to their homes located in Batang Balui to make space for the concrete-faced rockfill Bakun dam.
Uma Belor was one of the longhouses whose residents left their ancestral land for new life in Sungai Asap, 60km away from the dam site.
According to Sarawak Hidro operations and maintenance general manager Anuar Abu Bakar, the catchment area of the dam covers an area of about 14,750km2 or 11 per cent of Sarawak equivalent to the size of Kelantan.
Meanwhile the reservoir has a surface area of 695km2, approximately the size of Singapore.
The Bakun reservoir spans Batang Balui, Sungai Murum, Sungai Pelepeh, Sungai Bahau and Sungai Linau.
Emang Lawai, 86, reminisced on the day he had to move away from Batang Balui.
Higo (left) and Emang (right) still long for their lives back in Batang Balui.
“They provided us with lorries and cars to move all our belongings. It took us one day to move all of our stuff and we even brought along our pigs and chickens.”
Some longhouses such as Uma Juman scavenged what part of the structure they could dismantle to reuse in their new home.
Uma Juman in Batang Balui before being relocated to Sungai Asap.
Painting found in the old longhouse of Uma Juman at Batang Balui.
But it was a different case for Uma Belor. Emang said they just left the longhouse the way it was.
“When we arrived here in Sungai Asap, the longhouses were already built and they just pointed to us which ‘bilik’ was ours.”
His personal understanding on the cause of the resettlement was better accessibility.
Uma Belor, Sungai Asap.
“The government moved us here so there is accessibility, so that we are nearer to schools,” Emang said, “Back at the old longhouse in Batang Balui, we had only one primary school. Here at Sungai Asap resettlement area, we even have a secondary school.”
SMK Bakun being the only secondary school there caters for students up to form five while there are two primary schools; SK Batu Keling and SK Long Gang.
But the farmer still longed for his old home which now lies at the bottom of the Bakun reservoir.
“Of course I would prefer to live there (Batang Balui). There were so many animals to hunt, so many fish to catch. Here we keep on spending money to buy meat to eat.”
Part of the Bakun reservoir with surface area of 695km2, approximately the size of Singapore.
Higo Anye, 70, shared his disappointment on resettling to Sungai Asap, adding that his reason was a lack of land allocation for settlers.
According to Higo, each ‘pintu’ was only provided with three acres of land.
“Let’s say if you have children and grandchildren, for example, how many acres can you pass on to them with those three acres?”
To earn a living, Higo fully relies on farming and like Emang, no longer goes out in the wild to hunt for animals and collect wild vegetables.
“We sell the vegetables at the nearby market. For those who have children doing well in their careers such as working in the government, they would receive money.
“Some of us we still have to earn our money at this age in order to feed ourselves,” he added.
Christina found life in Sungai Asap easier compared to her life back in Batang Balui.
As for Uma Belor’s Women Bureau chief Christina Tubit, the relocation left life easier for her and her family.
“Back at the old longhouse in Batang Balui, we had to use longboat to go to schools,” she said.
Life is easy for the mother of four as basic facilities such as clinics and markets were also accessible by car.
Remembering the old longhouse, Christina shared:“The nearest clinic was located in Uma Nyaving, we had to go by river to go there.”
In the Sungai Asap resettlement area, there are three clinics located nearby, namely Klinik Kesihatan Sungai Asap, Klinik Kesihatan Sungai Koyan and Klinik Kesihatan Uma Sambop, which is a 30-minute drive away.
In an effort to diversify the local people’s income, Uma Belor is listed in the homestay programme by the Ministry of Tourism.
Christina’s was one of the 12 homes in the longhouse that ran the programme.
So far she has welcomed tourists from West Malaysia, Japan and even South Korea to her home.
Christina’s homestay in Uma Belor.
Bakun Dam today
Standing tall at 205m, the Bakun Hydroelectric Power Plant located about 180km from Bintulu was deemed a major catalyst in transforming Sarawak’s economy by providing up to 2,400 megawatts to meet industrial demands.
Former chief minister and current Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud cited the RM7.2 billion dam as a major step forward in the development of Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE).
Run by Sarawak Hidro, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Minister of Finance Incorporated, the dam was finally completed and commissioned in 2014.
Bakun dam spillway is designed for a probable maximum flood with a discharge capacity of 15,000m3/s.
On March 15, a delegation of 50 representatives from Department of Information and various media agencies made a working visit to Bakun dam as part of the department’s Kembara Media 2016 Sarawak programme.
The visit was also organised to generate publicity about Bakun dam and at the same time maintain close contact with the media industry.
The group was briefed on how Sarawak Hidro manages its power station, reservoir management, hydro-engineering mechanisms, energy production and risk management, also managing to make a visit to the dam powerhouse and its spillway.
Giving back to the community
The reservoir bordered by the 205m high dam wall.
It is undeniable that Sarawak Hidro has been doing its part to give back to the local communities, especially those in the resettlement areas.
Anuar assured Kembara Media delegates that any locals who are qualified will be employed by Sarawak Hidro.
“Now, with more than 200 employees, about 65 per cent of our staff are Sarawakians and 30 per cent are people from Sungai Asap,” he said.
Corporate Services general manager Faisal Shahbudin said Sarawak Hidro is always concerned and tried its best to be helpful with regards to Sungai Asap settlers’ economy and education.
For instance earlier this year, the company handed out more than 300 school bags to SMK Bakun form one students.
“Alhamdulillah, last year we spent about RM1 mil on our projects to help the local people. We will continue do our part through our CSR programmes.”
Eight 330MW turbines located at the Bakun dam powerhouse.
Pitcher-plants of the genus Nepenthes are tropical carnivorous plants that trap and digest insects.
Some of Borneo's pitcher plants inhabit a broad altitudinal range in its mountainous forests, while others are limited to a narrow band.
Models indicate that one of these narrow-band species will go extinct by 2050 if current warming trends continue.
Nepenthes, or tropical pitcher plants, are a genus of carnivorous plants well known for their intricate and beautiful pitcher-shaped leaves that trap and digest insects. The genus is comprised of approximately 150 species, most of which are endemic to the Old World Tropics. The greatest diversity of Nepenthes are found in Borneo, Sumatra and the Philippines. Plants within the Nepenthes genus grow within a broad altitude range from sea level to 3,400 meters (11,100 feet). But some species are restricted to narrower ranges, and may face extinction in a warming world.
At 140 million years old, the Borneo rainforest is one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Approximately 15,000 species of flowering plants and 3,000 tree species comingle and compete for space in this dense plant community. The Borneo rainforest is also home to various indigenous peoples, a treasure trove of medicinal plants, and a rich collection of carnivorous plants. Carnivorous plants can be found throughout Borneo but one especially accessible area to visit tropical pitcher plants is in Bako National Park.
Bako National Park is the oldest National Park in the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo. The park is close enough to the city of Sarawak to visit in one day. Once in the park, hikers can explore the intertidal zone of the South China Sea and trek into steep regions of montane forest in the same day. Wildlife is abundant. One particular trail, the Lintang Trail, leads hikers along mangrove boardwalks near the Park headquarters and up a steep sandstone escarpment. Hikers eventually reach a plateau area that is part keranga, or dry heath forest, and part bare sandstone rock. It doesn’t take a well-trained botanist to spot abundant tropical pitcher plants while hiking around the Lintang trail. Nepenthes are everywhere along the trail and appear quite healthy. Multiple Nepenthes species thrive in Bako National Park, but one species, Raffles’ pitcher-plant (N. rafflesiana), is particularly well represented along this trail.
Raffles’ pitcher-plants grow happily in various microenvironments: peat swamp forests, heath forests, cliffsides and keranga forest. Furthermore, this species lives within a broad altitude range, and is found at sea level all the way up to 1,500 meters (5,000 feet). Thanks in part to its flexible altitude range, this Nepenthes species enjoys healthy population numbers and is currently listed as a Least Concern species on the IUCN list of endangered species.
Now, let’s compare this scenario with another tropical pitcher plant living in Borneo, the large-leaved pitcher-plant, (Nepenthes macrophylla). Unlike Raffle’s pitcher plant, this species can tolerate only a narrow range in altitude, growing exclusively on mossy ridges along Mount Trusmadi between 2,000 and 2,600 meters (6,500 and 8,200 feet) (Clarke, 1997.) Mount Trusmadi is located in Sabah, the eastern region of Borneo. The peak of Mount Trusmadi sits at 2642 meters (8667 feet), so the narrow altitude range of the large-leaved pitcher-plant extends almost up to the summit. Due in part to this restrictive geographic range, the population of this Nepenthes species is in a precarious situation, and is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN list.
Okay, so what are the most probable fates of these two different Nepenthes species in the next 100 years as the world warms? Would populations of large-leaved and Raffles’ pitcher-plants be impacted by the predicted rise in global temperatures?
In the next century, our planet is predicted to experience an increase in temperature between 1 and 5 degrees Celsius (2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit). Most living creatures will be challenged in some manner by this shift. Plants, unlike animals, lead a largely sedentary lifestyle. On a multi-generational timeframe, they can disperse seeds directionally along an environmental gradient, but, unlike birds or mammals, they don’t have the luxury of quickly moving to cooler microclimates within one lifespan. In this sense, the breadth of a plant’s altitudinal range is a determinant of how well a plant can cope with predicted climate change scenarios.
As anyone who has climbed a mountain can attest, temperatures decrease as you gain in elevation. In fact, temperatures drop approximately 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet in elevation. If a plant can tolerate a wide range in altitude, then throughout the next century of predicted climate increase, that species has the luxury of aggregating towards the higher and cooler end of its altitude range.
To that point, one can imagine that a Nepenthes species such as Raffles’ pitcher-plant, with its broad altitude range, would be capable of adapting to climate change. The species will slowly aggregate in the higher and cooler parts of its range and likely survive. However, for the large-leaved pitcher-plant this transition is less likely. As temperatures increase, this species would shift to the highest portion of its narrow altitude range only to reach the very tip of the Mount Trusmadi summit. In an attempt to find cooler air, the large-leaved pitcher-plant would eventually reach a proverbial brick wall. With no cooler land to colonize, the species would perish if its last mountaintop refuge heats up more than it can stand.
This type of theoretical extinction event can be illustrated with a tool called environmental niche modeling (ENM). An environmental niche model generates a prediction for the future distribution of a species. These models use computer-generated algorithms to predict future shifts in the geographic distributions of wildlife. Scientists are now utilizing these models to learn how an increase in global temperatures may affect the population of one particular species. A collaboration between Scottish and Malaysian biologists has yielded an environmental niche model that examines the predicted fates of four plant species currently growing on Mount Trusmadi. The authors entered sampling datasets for two Nepenthes species (N. macrophylla and N. Iowii) and two other plant species (Hopea montana and Shorea monticola). The model then used two separate climate change models to examine the future population health of these species in 2050.
Of the four species analyzed, the large-leaved pitcher-plant is predicted to be the most severely affected by a future rise in global temperatures. In fact, this ENM estimates that this Nepenthes species will become extinct by 2050. The authors cite the species’ narrow altitude range as the main driver of this predicted decline.
“In the case of Nepenthes macrophylla, the restriction of this species to the summit makes this species particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change,” they write in their 2011 study.
Now, admittedly, these ECNs are a blunt tool for predicting the future health of a population. It is also possible that in 50 or 100 years, a plant could evolve a greater tolerance for broader altitude ranges and/or higher temperatures. As the world heats up, a Nepenthes species may adapt via incremental changes in physiology and behavior. In theory, this would decrease the chance of an extinction event.
But ECNs do provide some indication of the likely trajectory of a species in the face of climate change. And as it stands now, the future does not look good for the large-leaved pitcher-plant.
Kevin Curran is an adjunct professor and researcher at the University of San Diego. The views expressed are his own.
Adam, J. H., Wilcock, C. C., & Swaine, M. D. (1992). The ecology and distribution of Bornean Nepenthes. J. Trop. Forest Sci, 5(1), 13-25.
Clarke, C. (1997). Nepenthes of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah: Natural History Publications (Borneo) xi, 207p-col. illus.. ISBN, 1248185562.
MacKinnon, K. (1996). The ecology of Kalimantan (Vol. 3). Oxford University Press.
Maycock, C. R., Majapun, R., Khoo, E., Pereira, J., Sugau, J., & Burslem, D. F. R. P. (2011). The potential impacts of climate change on the distribution of Nepenthes and dipterocarps of the Trus Madi Forest Reserve. Conservation of biodiversity in Trus Madi Forest Reserve.
Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis on March 24, 2016