The Fury of Sungai Ringlet

7th Nov 2014-Sungai Ringlet is just one of the many rivers in Cameron Highlands that has seen better days. It flows from Ulu Ringlet about 3 km down gradients of 20 to 30 degrees , right into the heart of Ringlet town, passing farms, settlements, temples, schools and markets. As with many other rivers in Cameron Highlands, the towns and villages grew around it eg, Sg Tringkap, Sg Terla, Sg Bertam and Kg Raja.

Picture of Ringlet town

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Sg. Ringlet is born in the mossy forests of the Titiwangsa Range.  From the peaks of Gunung Jor at 1416 m above sea level  ASL on the Perak border, from the ridges of Chelvi pass at 1300 m ASL it flows eastwards  through the forest reserve of Ringlet and just before Ringlet town it is joined by Sungai Merah.

Picture of Ulu Ringlet

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It epitomises the majority of the rivers in Cameron Highlands. Throughout the years it is literally being choked to death… from the sides, from the bottom and from the top. All manner of rubbish is being thrown into it, farm waste, household waste and the ubiquitous chicken dung. But the most common stuff being rammed down its throat is this orangy substance called mud.

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In the evening of the 5th of November 2014 it lashed out in fury.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDEg8zqMI_s

The evening of the 5th of November 2014 is like any other weekday in Cameron Highlands. At about 5 pm most farmers would be returning from their farms, some parents would have just returned from fetching their children back from tuition, lorry drivers would have begun to arrive home after sending  vegetables to  Pasar Borong Selayang , and other areas in the lowlands. The only difference was that it had been raining for the past few days and around 5 pm the rains picked up in intensity. For many of us preparing for our dinners and getting ready for an evening of rest, we felt a sense of foreboding . This pattern of a few days of almost continuous rain followed by an intense downpour means the saturated earth would be unable to accommodate more water….rivers  will swell , lands will slide ,mud will flow and lives and property will be lost. By 8pm our hand phones began to ring.

Watching videos of Sungai Ringlet on the social media later in its moment of madness, the sheer force of the mud was truly frightening. It would have been less terrifying if Sungai Ringlet was a little away from dwellings but this was happening in the heart of Ringlet with houses right at the water’s edge. Any living thing falling into it would have been literally “pulverised”.

So where does all this mud comes from? Here’s where our elected representative never fails  to disappoint.  Whether to the media or in the hallowed halls of parliament, he has regularly imparted his “words of wisdom” delighting us with ” his depth of thinking and wealth of knowledge.”  On this occasion it was no different. When asked by reporters whether the mud flow was due to land clearing he replied that it was not.… That was a classic.

Below are pictures showing the opposite.

Mud flowing into Sungai Ringlet from land cleared for farming  upstream to Ringlet town.( Pictures taken 2 days after the mud flow tragedy in Ringlet which took 5 lives.)

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Mud flowing into Sg Merah in Ulu Merah from land cleared for development and farming.

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The main causes of frequent flooding in Sungai Ringlet  and other rivers in Cameron Highlands  include

1. Failure of the Local and State Government in curbing illegal land clearing.  Illegal land clearing is extensive here . It  can be broadly classified into 2 types based on the modus operandi

a. In the first group, the documents are fake or has been altered. Temporary occupation licences TOLs are usually TOLs Layang or flying TOLs whereby the reference numbers of old TOLs ( either purchased or stolen), are reused for TOL in new places –usually  virgin forests. This explains why even though no new TOLs were issued since 2008 ( see pic below ) primary forests continued to be cleared using land clearing permits for flying TOLs. Fake TOLs are easy to spot because TOLs reference numbers  are normally in sequence. I wonder why the Settlement Officers and Land Administrator are not able to spot them. The answer is very obvious don’t you think?  The amount of RM 20,000 for every 1 acre cleared has been in the local grapevine for  a few years now. Probably the amount is higher nowadays  if you factor in inflation!

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b. The 2nd group takes the cake. They do not bother with any documentation at all. They just attack the slopes and forests knowing that the protection money they spent will be well worth it. They are so blatant that they just clear or burn the forests by the main roads in full view of those passing by. One can see them on the mountain slopes on the right side as one drives from Tringkap to Kuala Terla; in Batu 49, in Ulu Ringlet,in  Bertam Valley  it is on both sides and in Kampung Raja it is even in the heart of  town ! While the going rate for the 1st group is usually 20 K per acre for locals , the 2nd group which is usually done by Bangladeshs enjoy a 50 % discount being foreigners !

Land matters is under the State jurisdiction. The State Government of Pahang has been incompetent in managing Cameron Highlands for allowing these matters to fester for so long. It has now clearly jeopardised the environment and safety of  Cameron Highlands and the adverse economic  impact is beginning to be felt.

2. Failure in enforcing silt control measures for  land clearings , whether it  is for developments or farming.

These is clearly illustrated by the pictures  below

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Under The Land Conservation Act 1960 (Act 385)( Akta Pemuliharaan Tanah 1960)which is basically a law relating to the conservation of hill land and the protection of soil from erosion and the inroad of silt, silt should not be displaced to other lands or to any water course.

Even in Tanah Rata ,the administrative  centre , no action has been taken against errant developers who violates this Act.

So all the mud ends up making rivers like Sg Ringlet , Sg Tringkap , Sg Ikan and Habu lake shallower, putting the people in these towns and  especially  Bertam Valley folks at great risk of mud floods.The department who is supposed to enforce this is again the Land office.

3. Extensive usage of plastic canopies/roofing sheets for farms

During rains , the runoff goes straight to the waterways and not onto the ground where at least some of the rainwater can be absorbed. As a result the already shallow rivers is unable to cope with the sudden deluge and will overflow its banks .

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4. Lack of a riparian zone or buffer zone between the rivers and the farms.

Under the National Land Code section 13 (ii) a there should be a 50 m buffer zone from the rivers. Without this buffer zones effluent from the farms goes directly into the rivers. The pictures below taken in Ulu Ringlet and Ulu Merah shows farms right at the waters edge. This is the norm for most of the rivers here including those in the catchment areas.

Rivers in Cameron Highlands are less than 50 metres and their reserves are gazetted as follows:

Sg Ringlet 8 m width with 10 m reserve each side

Sg Merah 5m width with 5 m reserve each side

 Sg Bertam 20 m width with 20 m reserve each side

Sg Telom 30 m width with 30 m reserve each side

 

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5.The rivers being treated as dumpsites

As can be seen for the rubbish washed up from the floods, discarded plastics roofing sheets are the commonest. Others include farm and household debri . All these will clog up the waterways  and render the rivers shallower.

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We are glad that the Federal Government is stepping in to help clean up the’ mess’  that Cameron Highlands has fallen into and hope that the positive steps will continue. Repatriating illegal workers is a crucial move. Cleaning up corruption especially in the Land Office and Town Council is another crucial step but that is a very ,very challenging task indeed. The 3rd crucial step would be to encourage farmers to practice rainwater harvesting where some of the runoff from the plastic roofing are diverted into holding tanks . If these 3 crucial steps are not taken, rivers like Sungai Ringlet  will lash out in fury again and the next time casualties will be much higher.