Tambatuon dam: A question of need

By Dr Edwin Bosi

Suddenly Malaysia is concerned about food security. In Sabah, food security is been used to justify for the construction of a controversial multi-million ringgit Tambatuon dam in the district of Kota Belud. But Malaysia’s quest for 100% self sufficient in rice appears to be bleaker by the day. Under the 5th Malaysia Plan (1986-90), there was plan to achieve 80-85% self sufficient involving eight areas covering 220,000 hectares of land. The plan then was to achieve 70% to 90% by 2010 for West Malaysia, from 30% to 70% in Sabah and from 50% to 70% in Sarawak by 2010. We are now in 2011 and our reliance on imported rice is not getting less. It is much cheaper to import than to grow rice, it seems.

The inflation is biting hard and with the high cost of “everything” nothing will be produce cheaply. The subsidies that benefited the less fortunate are been withdrawn. The peoples’ income remains stagnant and as prices of commodities ran wild many will be drawn into the poor-income bracket soon. The people in poverty will soon fill into the abject poverty bracket. I wish not to say about those in abject poverty and what the future is in store for them. The millions of non-tax paying illegal immigrants are now legalised and will add more burden to the State. It will be a long journey in a dark tunnel for genuine Sabahans whose natural resource-rich State is now the poorest in Malaysia.

Malaysia is ranked 25th in rice production with China in number one position. However, Australia is the most efficient rice producer at 8.7 tons/ha while Malaysia can only muster an average of 3.3 ton/ha. Malaysia’s rice yield per capita (per person) has fallen from 174.6 kg in 1974 to 86kg in 2008.

Malaysia during the Mahathir era focused on industry economy and rice production was marginalised. Realising the importance of food security the country now embarks on food production. Basically the government must encourage and provide assistance to smallholders to grow rice. The government must also encourage the private sectors to participate in rice production.

Malaysia’s rice production will be affected by few factors. The government austerity drive and withdrawal of padi planting subsidy may cause more smallholders to look for other alternative livelihood. When the price of rice fell many farmers will abandon padi cultivation. The other factors that have an impact of rice production will be the cost of production such as fertilizers, mechanizations and fuel.

The second issue is production per unit area. It is reported that in the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) the 168,000 hectares of smallholder lands are producing between 3-4 tons per hectare. On the other hand, Sime Darby is looking at producing 8-10 ton/ha. The mechanisation of padi production from 1950 – 1980 saw reduction in labour requirement but it did not increase yield per hectare.

Of great importance is the use of water in rice production. It is known that proper amount of water is required when rice farming is mechanised. Experience from West Malaysia indicates that irrigation system must be proper and adequate. As the World Bank reported, there must be an engineering design of future irrigation projects in the tropic. The Bank has been supporting irrigation development for rice cultivation in Malaysia since the 60s.

Likewise in the 25000-acre Federal-funded Kota Belud Jelapan padi project, the Padi Miller Association has identified what is required to succeed. The Association talked about upgrading and repair of drainage and irrigation, bridges and providing path to the padi fields. So far RM75 million has been spent on irrigation repair in the Kota Belud Jelapan padi project but nothing positive seems to have come out of this. Based on a report, another RM90 million has been poured into the project since 2008.

Having seen RM165 millions have been spent on the Jelapan padi project, the government has now decided to construct a dam across the Kadamaian river at Kg Tambatuon at a cost of RM450 millions. The question is how come the RM165 millions spent on irrigation repair did not achieve its objective. Why a need for a massive dam when water is not an issue?

According to the Padi Millers Association, there are many rivers supplying the Jelapan Padi project area. They argued that there is too much water and because of the poor drainage and irrigation system the padi is lost through flooding. They have suggested a new padi species that survive under water. They would like to call it the “submarine” padi variety.

Relocation of villagers

In any EIA activity, the social impact is equally important. Since the government has failed to engage with affected villagers before proposing for the dam, the villagers are now hostile to the idea of submerging their villages and their heritage. Only now the government talks about huge compensation and the peoples’ share in the profit derived from the dam.

But the villagers have travelled to see the Moyog dam in Penampang and Bakun dam in Sarawak where they saw for themselves the impact of the dams. Sadly the affected villagers were short-changed as they were forgotten as soon as they were relocated to the new settlement. They did not get water supply or lands for cultivation. Their new houses are small and so compacted. All the beautiful promises were empty. It is therefore natural after these visitations that the Tambatuon villagers will not agree to allow their land to be submerged and be relocated even with the promised of high earnings through sharing of profit from the spin-off from the dam.

Comparing notes

(i) The government stated that the water is required for the 25,000 acres Jelapan padi project in Tempasuk plain.

The Padi Miller Association said the problem is not water shortage but the excessive water damaging their crops. It is all about proper irrigation and drainage system.

(ii) The government stated that a hydro will be commissioned to supply the much needed energy for Kota Belud and the surrounding areas.

The government should commission a gas-power plant in Kota Belud as the off-shore platform is not far from Kota Belud. The gas is being burned which is a lost for the country. The government should also consider constructing small hydro-power plants to provide energy for specific townships when there are river systems from the hills and mountains. Biomass for energy derives from oil palm plantations and wind turbines should be considered.

(iii) The government stated that tourism will be developed including fishing in the dam area.

Why should the government talk about tourism when Kg Tambatuon is now a tourist attraction and with a potential for expansion. The natural setting and people, pleasant weather, beautiful river teeming with fish, forest, hills and Mt Kinabalu are what many urban folks and foreigners are yearning for. The villagers are promoting home stays. They are now planning to start another route to the peak of Mt Kinabalu. It is with this natural setting that Kota Belud in particular will flourish as a tourism destination.

The villagers are now growing their own food, supplying the markets with pricy fragrant rice, fresh fruits and vegetables. They have homesteads in operation and their rubber trees have matured to give them a decent earning and livelihood. They older folks are contented and happy to live out their life in their villages while many young (even graduates) are returning to work on their land.

(iv) The government talks about supplying clean water.

Kota Belud is fortunate to have so many rivers from the Crocker Range. The issue of supplying clean water is therefore a non-issue. What is happening now is that the government fails to supply water to all the people in Kota Belud and surrounding areas. Many villages are still using or relying on rain water and gravity. The infrastructure development in Sabah is not in tandem with that of West Malaysia despite the fact Sabah contributed so much to the National coffer.

(v) The government is concerned about food security.

The food security that the government is concerned about should have been addressed long ago. It was Dr Mahathir’s era which overlooked agriculture development. The 25,000 acres Jelapan padi project can assist Malaysia to increase self-sufficiency but will create social problem when foreign workers are employed to work on the land.

The key to food security is high productivity. Thus, the available padi land now can help achieve self-sufficiency if production can be increased from 2.0 ton/ha to more than 8.0 ton/ha. If this high production rate can be achieved Sabah will have surplus rice for export when the 25,000 acres Kota Belud Jelapan padi project begins production.

Finally, we are not getting high padi production. Why? Despite the funding, proper irrigation, fertilizers and whatnot we are not getting higher padi production. On the other hand, hill-grown padi that require minimal water has sustained the rural indigenous people. I think we really need to address this production issue before we dwell on the Tambatuon dam.

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Monday, 8 August 2011 - 7:48 pm

    Every1 knows d real reason is 2 hv another mega projek 4 UmnoB/BN n cronies 2 jiak, jiak, jiak – driven by greed, corruption, NOT by food security
    As long as we hv UmnoB/BN, dis nation will b bled 2 bankruptcy, akan datang

  2. #2 by Joshua on Wednesday, 10 August 2011 - 5:41 am

    “Tambatuon dam. ” really means tambah tuan wang rasuah with the construction and all the ensuing problems have nothing to do with those laughing to the banks.

    “Tambatuon dam.” really means more or tambah burden for the people of the area and Sabah as the poverty would remain high.

    So the people are damned with BN/UMNO who also want more mega projects with questionable consequences..

You must be logged in to post a comment.