Friday, 20 February 2009

Logging, land clearing caused mass fish deaths in S'wak


Published: Friday February 20, 2009

MIRI: The unusual mass deaths of fish in Sarawak inland rivers recently was caused by suffocation due to siltation triggered by logging, plantations and land-clearing projects, according to the Ministry of Environment and Public Health.

Investigations found that certain developers had taken advantage of loopholes in environmental assessment laws to carry out their projects without having to go through scrutiny by his ministry, said Assistant Minister Dr Abang Abdul Rauf Abang Zen said on Friday.

In very frank press conference here, Dr Rauf said the blame for the "fishy" phenomenon lay squarely with these development companies.

Over the past two months, tonnes of fishes from inland river tributaries in several parts of Sarawak had suddenly died en-masse. This phenomenon was seen in Bakun, Mukah, Kapit, Marudi and even in the Baram River near Miri.

The worst-hit river was the Balui River in Bakun, the site of the RM6 billion hydro-electric dam project in central Sarawak.

Dr Rauf said on Friday that he and the enforcement officers from the Sarawak Natural Resources and Environment Board had gone personally to investigate the dead fish cases.

"We carried out investigations from helicopters and on the ground and had carried out tests on water-samples and on the dead fish.

"It was found that the fishes died because of suffocation. For example in Bakun, there was a very high degree of suspended solids in the rivers in Belaga, Balui and Baleh - six to 20 times the normal level.

This was caused by logging and land-clearing in the upstream of the Bakun hydro dam. The death of the fishes was not due to the dam construction itself," he said.

Dr Rauf said his ministry found that some giant timber companies had by-passed Environmental Impact Assessment requirements by splitting their projects into very small packages.

Under the state EIA law, any development project measuring 500 hectares and above must be subjected to EIA.

"These companies split their projects into small packages in order to escape the EIA. For example, some companies with licence to open 10,000 hectares of land had split their project into small ones measuring 499 hectares each.

"By doing this, they escape the need to carry out EIA. This happened in the upstream of Bakun. That is why these projects had caused excessive siltation and killed a lot of fish. These fish were washed down by the rivers during the floods," he explained.

Dr Rauf said his ministry will hold a meeting with members of the Sarawak Timber Association early next month to find a way for them to cooperate to stop the environmental degradation.

He said the state government wants to balance the need for land development with the need to protect and conserve the environment and its natural resources because interior folks depended on these natural assets for their daily survival.