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Monday, April 12, 2010

Cameron-Kuala Lipis highway: Miles and miles of destruction

Arshad Khan  

Environmental terrorism - this best describes the activities that greet the new highway which begins from the dirty and fly-infested town of Ringlet in Cameron Highlands, heading towards Kuala Lipis. Scheduled to open last month, ARSHAD KHAN finds out at what cost the highway is being constructed.

Pollution and landslides - both these appear to have permanently taken the place of what was once a river. No thanks to the new highway from Ringlet, Cameron Highlands to Kuala Lipis, Pahang.
But this revelation is just one part of it that is irreversible; in fact this applies to all development and progress projects.
Right: Boulders bulldozed into rivers.
The human cost, needless to say, is not quantifiable. The displacement of the natives - the Orang Asli - from their ancestral land is one major factor to have been considered seriously, while the displacement of wild life and destruction of vegetation are other two major factors.
Nothing can replace the destruction of wild life habitat and their subsequent extinction. And it does not take an expert to draw the conclusion that there had been no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) done for this project.
Once crystal clear
The Highway that begins from the very filthy, fly infested and unorganised Ringlet town, cuts eastwards along the mountain valleys, mostly along river banks, disastrously cutting the mid-range towards Kuala Lipis. Boulders, soil and huge log and timber debris are bulldozed along the rivers’ banks, at many stretches into the rivers, that, according to the natives and some vegetable farmers were once crystal clear.
Left: Rivers jammed with silt and logs.
Once too, the waters of these rivers or streams could be consumed without any problems. Now, all the rivers along the new Highway are silted heavily, murky, full of timber debris.
There is no sign of any wild life around here. Timber, miles inwards along the highway, had long been logged; now some ‘VIP’ seem to be negotiating with the Orang Asli to log their ancestral land.
Helpless natives
The natives are not happy about this but they are helpless as no one listens to them and they are just pushed around.
In order to give a ‘better life’ to the Orang Asli, the government is building a small housing scheme for the natives to move out from their present site. This scheme is on refilled, swamp site that will sink (settle) within the next couple of years. This new village will flood with every heavy rainfall.
Right: A new housing project by the "Barisan Nasional government" to re-settle the Orang Asli.
It is unlikely the settlement would be ready as planned. There are no electricity, water, drainage, or the sealing of roads and naked ground.
But most important was the fact that there it was more breezy, free from water borne diseases and had a panoramic view of the valley and its surroundings. Now, into the valley, the hillside stares down, threatening with floods. The current location will sink as it is a swamp land fill subject to flooding.
The site was visited en route from Ringlet to Kuala Lipis sometime in January this year and is located about a hour’s drive from Ringlet.
'Modern' facilities
In the first place, why should the Orang Asli be reallocated from their original location nearby from the mountain slopes? Their abodes were free from floods, dust and noise from the new Highway; their former location required no drainage.
Left: A fish eye view of the housing scheme, but 'schemed' to displace the natives' original sites which offer a more dignified life.
According to a resident of the settlement, the excuse was to provide modern facilities. Negotiations are on going to log their former area with its surroundings that the people had used for their livelihood in the past, mostly consisting of ‘petai’, rattan, wild orchids and some small animals for home consumption.
According to the man, he is not in favour of moving out and their land logged; their ancestors had occupied the land for hundred of years and now it has to be destroyed through logging and eventually resort or other development in the pristine and cool location.
Why don’t the people protest, I asked. What can they do against the authorities? According to the man almost every month, some VIP would arrive with many assistants and would disappear into the forest; all the areas along the new Highway has been heavily logged, with rivers and other water sources destroyed or polluted.
End of rivers
Sure enough, if one was to drive along the new Highway from Ringlet to Kuala Lipis, both the flanks of the road had been indiscrimately worked to pave way. Many slopes are too steep, no silt traps were built, the rivers are clogged with fallen trees, garbage and silt eroded from the newly exposed mountain slopes.
Some of the Highway runs just along the rivers’ banks and in many spots, the low lying river banks had been filled with soil brought from mountain slopes. Many parts of the rivers are now narrowed.
According to some workers at the sight and the ‘Orang Asli’, the waters formerly used to be crystal clear and fish abound.
The question is, what sort of people does our government employ for the environment that includes preservation of animals, the rivers and water sources, forests, that has to be passed on to our children?
Right: Rivers are constricted.
We have already lost most of our mineral resources and forests from mismanagement; forested mountains, caves and their contents, marine life - the list is endless. Why?
Too many times the reasons had been written here and it seems its going on deaf ears! Why should anyone care when they could hoard money and spend it in some overseas developed countries?
A better driving alternative
Not many people know the existence of the new Highway or when construction started. Why did the authorities not get feedback from the public? Perhaps there would be some good suggestions as how to construct the Highway without destroying the environment, polluting the rivers and displacing the natural habitat.
From an environmental perspective, the Highway should have been constructed higher along the mountains slopes and instead of cutting slopes too much, construct tunnels; the higher road would give scenic driving view, the tunnels would save unnecessary destruction and break the driving boredom.
Perhaps the responsible people are unable to think of better ways as suggested here or perhaps there are some vested interest. Silt from construction of roads on higher elevation could easily be trapped in silt traps and would not flow into rivers; landslides debris will spread on slopes, trapped by natural vegetation.
On steep slopes, tunnels should be constructed so as not to effect too much land cutting, erosion and landslides. Cutting on steep slopes weakens the soil through the destruction of natural vegetation that holds the soil in place aided by the porosity from root structures and burrowing animals.
Right: The rich jungle which acts as a source of food. Soon to disappear.
Now I know why the Pahang River is forever the ‘teh tarik’, for all the eroded silt, discarded material and timber debris begin from up-streams, that is, from the younger courses of tributaries.
Before the highway could officially be declared open, landslides had already started; the rivers are getting jammed with excessive, speedy rain water that rushes down unimpeded along the flanks of the highway.
How is that our highly qualified engineers are unable to foresee and check this man made disaster? I do not mind giving them some lessons or teaching them.
When this highway was travelled in January 2010, the locals were not aware of the plan to construct it; many of their villages had been cut off from previous tracks that have existed for more than 50 years after independence.
Whither progress?
What progress? - the villages retort back. They only know  about the outside world during election campaigns when their votes are baited.
The Highway was supposed to have been opened in March this year. The road surfacing might be ready but no one can stop the regular landslides. It would be interesting to know at what cost this highway is being constructed.


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