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Energy project changes the lives of interior folks
Published on: Saturday, December 29, 2018
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Kota Kinabalu: IRENE Kodoyou is one of the few hundreds of indigenous natives living in remote rural areas in Sabah who grew up without seeing a light bulb, not until about a decade ago.For everyone else in urban areas, her experience may be hard to imagine because electricity is often taken for granted. They have no need to be conscious of how light is generated. All it takes just a flick of the switch.

But in Kampung Buayan, Penampang, where Irene was born more than five decades ago, it is not that simple. To enjoy electricity, they had to literally create it themselves.

Some 10 years ago, a community-based micro-hydro project was initiated in her village, located in the Crocker Range, basically to provide the community with a clean and cheaper source of energy as opposed to the more expensive diesel powered generator sets or the old fashion kerosene lamp they had been using.

The community-driven project had ensured the continued and active involvement and participation of the Kadazandusun community at all stages, including in its capacity building for their role in project site identification, project planning and design, project installation and maintenance of the micro-hydro system, therefore also resulting in empowering of their capabilities.

When the system was finally commissioned in 2009, Irene's community did not only get to enjoy free and renewable energy to power light bulbs in their homes but was also able to use it on improving their livelihoods.

"Soon after having electricity, my community was able to purchase a refrigerator," she announced during a recent interview.

It probably takes a moment for anyone to grasp how a mere refrigerator has given a life-changing impact to the Kampung Buayan farming villagers who source out their food directly from nature for every meal.

"We used to smoke fish we catch in the river and wild meat that we hunt in the jungle. Or else, we ferment them to make them last longer. Now, we can keep them in the refrigerator and they stay fresh.

"We can keep them fresh until the time we sell some of them in the 'tamu' (weekly farmers' market). This is how we make a little bit of money," added Irene.

She also said having electricity has allowed the women in her community to stay up longer to make handicrafts for sale.

"And our children can study for longer hours whereas before, they stopped whenever the generator set ran out of fuel. Over the years, I'm proud to say that we have seen some significant improvement in our children's passing marks. Some of them went as far as to the university and are now having a stable career," she said.

Her community's experience in being actively part of the micro-hydro installation project in Kampung Buayan and benefiting from its impact is shared by more than 30 other communities in Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsula Malaysia, all of which, were initiated by a Sabah-based renewable energy champion and multiple award-winning non-governmental organisation, Tonibung.

For Tonibung, the bigger objective is not just about providing electricity to communities who do not have access to energy but to make them become aware of their role to protect and preserve their natural environment.

"Naturally, they will protect and preserve their watershed area because that's the source of water spins the turbine to generate electricity to their homes. This has been our main goal.

"It's all about re-connecting communities with the environment and what better way to do it than to use electricity as the means because it's everyone's basic need," shared Patrick Ginduh, Tonibung's Project Manager.

For more than two decades now, this has been the belief that sends Patrick and his team of trained "kampung" engineers to far-flung communities like the Muruts in Pensiangan, Sabah, and the Penans in Long Lamai, Sarawak, week in and week out to work with them in installing their micro-hydro system.

"It's always a great feeling to see the villagers beaming with joy when they switch on the lights in their village for the first time. But deep inside us, there's a greater sense of satisfaction in knowing that what we have helped to light up is not just homes but their lives.

"I know it sounds a cliché but think about it for a moment. These communities are relatively poor. Many of them are even the poorest of the poor. Already such, they are financially burdened with having to spend so much on fuel for their generator sets just to have a few hours of light. And for many of them, money is hard to earn.

"Now, with a renewable and free source of energy, they have many opportunities to improve their livelihood and quality of life. But beyond the day to day needs, a greater opportunity for them is to be able to re-connect to their land as protectors, defenders or stewards.

"As we know, land is life for indigenous peoples since time immemorial. The watershed is part of their concept of customary land and territories," Patrick explained.

In the present world where land has become more of a commodity, Patrick said it is paramount for indigenous communities to protect their rights over their traditional domains and resources so as to send a message to the mainstream society that development is also about conserving and respecting nature.

"Using renewable energy source like water to generate electricity and at the same time taking care of the entire environment that provides it sends this strong message across," he added.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon had said in 2016 that indigenous people's traditional knowledge on living in harmony with nature is a contribution to help achieve the sustainable development goals and prevent climate change.

"We have often seen many specialists, governments and industrial policies in the name of economic development, fighting against nature. Indigenous people have centuries-old wisdom on how to live harmonious with the nature. We have to learn such wisdom from them," Ban had advised.

Having been using renewable energy options like micro-hydro systems all the years all because they had been too far from the state electricity grid, indigenous communities in Sabah and in the country do have valuable experience to share about its power.

In this context, some see them as having more resilience should an energy crisis hit.

There have been positive signs that the Government of New Malaysia is drawing from lessons learned by indigenous communities in Malaysia using green energy to empower their lives.

Ever since their shocking victory in the 2018 general election, renewable energy has been one of their main narratives with Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister, Yeo Bee Yin, having said in October that Malaysia planned to increase its renewable energy portion of total energy generation mix to 20 per cent by 2030.

She had said the achievement would be the first milestone in the country's renewable energy transition roadmap.

Renewable energy constituted 2 per cent of the country's total energy generation mix as at 2016.

Yeo had also said that it was essential to make renewable energy affordable and accessible in the country and noted that many communities in rural areas of Sabah and Sarawak still did not have access to electricity.

"We still have kids who do not have light at night to read and to study, and that is not reasonable."

"I know that solar power and micro-hydro will be the solution to these kids, we bring light to the rural areas," she reportedly said.

Early in December, Sabah Rural Development Minister Datuk Ewon Benedick announced that the Government had agreed in principle to build micro-hydro systems to generate electricity in their villages.

He had said the Government was looking at building the renewable energy system in ten villages first sometime next year.

"Basically, we have agreed in principle that some of the rural electrification project funds should be spent on installing a micro-hydro system in villages which are too far from the grid.

"This is seen as a cost effective solution to provide energy access to remote communities for to connect them to the grid would be very expensive," he had said, adding that the Government would partner with Tonibung.

Despite showing its commitment toward a clean and green energy, there was a moment that raised public doubt and concern following Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad's call to utilise coal in Sabah during his opening address at the 22nd Conference of the Electric Power Supply Industry (CEPSI) 2018 few months ago.

It drew objections from non-governmental organisations and political parties from both sides of the divide. All talks about it has since stopped.

Being a member state of the United Nations, Malaysia is committed to meeting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), and goal number 7 is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and clean energy.

SGDs are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. All the 17 goals are interconnect and in order to leave no one behind, nations are urged to achieve each one and target by 2030.

The UN has stated that focusing on universal access to energy, increased energy efficiency and the increased use of renewable energy through new economic and job opportunities is crucial to creating more sustainable and inclusive communities and resilience to environmental issues like climate change.

It noted that even though progress had been made in the past decade regarding the use of renewable electricity from water, solar and wind power and the ratio of energy used per unit of GDP was also declining, the challenge was far from being solved and there needs to be more access to clean fuel and technology.

The body also called for more public and private investments in energy as well as more focus on regulatory frameworks and innovative business models to transform the world's energy systems.

Coming back to Irene and her community in Kampung Buayan, their most immediate goal is to keep sustaining their existing micro-hydro system and preserving their watershed areas surrounding it for over the past ten years, they have seen how energy that comes from freely nature has transformed their lives for the better.

Recently, Sabah Shell Petroleum Company Ltd (SSPC) had signed an agreement with Tonibung and Pacos Trust, a local network of indigenous community organisations, for a provision of RM300,000 that will go towards providing sustainable energy solutions for her village and neighbouring Tiku in Penampang, which will take place in 2019.

This addition will generate a total of 38.8kw of electricity, double of what was initially available, to meet the energy requirements of about 70 households across both villages.

But according to Irene, she and the community have learned that the technology and infrastructures behind the micro-hydro system can only be sustained when they, as energy consumers, stop taking for granted where its source comes from.

"For us who have only enjoyed electricity about ten years ago, we have learned that it's not just a flick of the switch. It's about being aware how it is created and how to use it to empower our lives. We must be conscious of this every step of the way," she said. - Leonard Alaza and Neil Chan



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