Explore all options before deciding on dam, UN rapporteur tells Sabah

Leo Heller with some of the attendees after the dialogue in Penampang.

KOTA KINABALU: The United Nations special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation has urged the government to consider all options for improving water supply for the people here.

In a dialogue with about 80 residents from several villages at Kg Timpayasa in Penampang yesterday, Leo Heller also said the government should discuss the matter with affected communities before making a decision.

“I believe the government should not close its eyes to other alternatives. When it comes to improving the water supply system, all options should at least be considered. Only after considering all options should it make a final decision,” he said.

However, Heller added that he did not have a solution to the problem of whether the Papar Dam mega project should proceed as he did not have the necessary information on the proposal.

A woman is seen wearing a Stop Kaiduan Dam T-shirt. Villagers in the area have been repeating the slogan since the project was first announced 10 years ago.

He said a water supply shortage could hit Kota Kinabalu and the neighbouring districts within the next five years, as the government had said. It was perhaps for this reason that the government was eager to come up with a quick solution, he added.

Heller said all options carried with them unique problems, and each had their advantages and disadvantages.

“I heard someone suggest a seawater desalination plant to solve the problem. But even this can cause extreme pollution which could affect the local communities where the plant is built.

“So I think the best solution is for all the stakeholders to meet amicably and talk to each other to come up with an inclusive decision that will benefit all parties.”

Heller said his visit was more about assessing the people’s access to clean water and sanitation. However, another visit is due next year to assess the situation of the people affected by mega projects including the proposed Papar Dam.

By then, he said, he would be able to make a more informed comment and propose solutions to the problem.

Leo Heller speaks to the villagers during the dialogue.

Buayan security and development committee chairman Marius Limaat told Heller that the villagers would stand their ground and insisted that they would not move out of their homes.

Speaking in a Dusun language with the help of a translator, Marius said he and the other villagers did not care if the government offered them millions.

“We won’t move, even if they kill us, because this is our home and this environment is all we want,” he said.

Timpayasa is one of nine villages which will be submerged or irreversibly damaged if the proposed mega dam called Papar Dam is built as the villages are all situated within the reservoir areas.

The RM2.3 billion project has been slated for construction as soon as next year, and state Infrastructure Development Minister Peter Anthony even said last week at the state legislative assembly that he would not heed pleas from anybody, including villagers and NGOs, to stop the project from being carried out.

The previous Sabah government took more than 10 years to carry out groundwork, studies and surveys and spent millions of ringgit on the environmental impact assessment report. It also engaged affected communities when it wanted to build the Kaiduan Dam on the same Papar river.

Leo Heller inspects a 1Malaysia blue water tank at Kg Terian.

The current Sabah government vowed before the May 9 general election to scrap the dam project and explore other options to address the projected water woes in the west coast if it came to power.

However, to the dismay of the locals, the government announced that a new dam would be built after all, the only difference being its location further down the same river.

The state government also said it was considering two dams instead of only one, including on the Mandalipau river which is enjoying a boom in rural tourism.