| Aziz Idris in Upper Baram, Sarawak |
EVERYTHING begins with clean water and for the Penan villagers of Ba Taha, in Upper Baram, Sarawak, clean water is not just a new beginning, it is life.
Formerly nomadic, the Penans in Ba Taha have learned to settle down, like other indigenous groups, only in the past decade. It is their home, playground and kitchen and naturally, the community is concerned with the forest’s well-being.
Located in the depth of Sarawak’s rainforest, the Penan villagers faced challenges gaining access to clean water because of rampant logging of the land in the past decade.
Coming to their assistance, the Rotary Club of Bandar Seri Begawan (RCBSB) and a team of resourceful men embarked on a Clean Water Project to supply fresh water to some 50 villagers of the Ba Taha community using a gravity-fed water system from a water catchment located some distance up-hill.
However, achieving this feat was not an easy task said RCBSB President, Kenneth Ling, in an interview with the Weekend Bulletin.
The journey to the Penan settlement is well over 10 hours drive from Miri Town and accessible only through logging roads set across treacherous terrain.
This posed a big challenge in terms of engineering, logistics and transportation of the heavy pipes, which are also expensive.
The most ideal water source at Ba Taha is spring water from the mountains, located some 1.3 kilometres from the village, at an incline of about 400 metres. The team had to install a 2,000 metre-long pipeline over undulating terrain.
Ling shared that such a project would not be a success without the help of the local Penans themselves.
“We didn’t do all the work alone. We insisted that the men from the village participate. We wanted them to learn how to put the pipes together, identify the tools they need to use and how to fix broken pipes.
“I am happy that up until today, they managed to handle it well enough.” The villagers, he added, were fast learners and the teamwork paid off as the project was completed in a single day.
Prior to the project, the Penans obtained water from the nearby river for their daily requirements such as bathing, washing laundry and kitchen utensils. However, pollution forced them to look for alternative sources of water from the top of the mountains, which required long hours of walking from their settlement.
Similar projects were also conducted at another Penan settlement of Ba Abang in early 2013, Ling noted, touching on the “success story” of that project.
“With clean water made available to the village (Ba Abang), the health and hygiene of the population in general has improved tremendously. This is more apparent to the children. When we first set foot there, most if not all of the children, had running noses with yellowish fluid. However, in our follow-up trip, it was observed that this is no longer so,” he exclaimed.
At the time, the number of villagers in Ba Abang stood at 140 people residing in 40 households. But a recent follow-up visit to the village clearly showed that with access to clean water, there have been seen significant changes in numbers, with the village having grown to 214 people in over 50 homes.
The rotarians also brought fruit and vegetable seeds for the Penan to plant. This way, they can enjoy healthier food and even sell extra produce for additional income as witnessed in Ba Abang. It is hoped that a similar impact will be seen at Ba Taha.
The Ba Taha project is the fifth sanitary and water project conducted by the RCBSB and with every project, site visits are compulsory to identify the sources of water. The group has shown no signs of stopping and a sixth project has already been planned for sometime in March at another Penan village called Long Lesuan.
“Rotary Club is not a charity club. We are a club that offer service above self. We do hands-on projects to help improve the lives of less fortunate people. We truly believe in teaching people to fish rather than give them the fish.”
Apart from Sarawak, the RCBSB has ambitions to join forces with other Rotary Clubs in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar to support local sanitation and water projects to improve the lives of poor communities.