The Rajang drainage basin
|Nickname: Swan river|
|- location||South China Sea, Malaysia|
|- elevation||0 m (0 ft)|
|Length||563 km (350 mi)|
The Rajang River (Malay: Batang Rajang) is a river in Sarawak, Malaysia. The river is located in northwest of Borneo and it originates in the Iran Mountains. The river flows approximately 563 km into Kapit, and then to the South China Sea, making it the longest river in Malaysia.
Amongst the Chinese in Sibu, the Rajang River also nicknamed as the "Swan River" (鹅江). This came from a legend where famine in Sibu ended when a flock of swans flew through the skies of Sibu. There is another story where the Sibu Chinese immigrants regarded Sibu Melanau people as "Go" people because a staple food of Melanau staple food was "Sago". Coincidentally, "Go" pronunciation is similar to Hokkien pronunciation of "Swan". This reminded Sibu Chinese immigrants of "Swan River" back in Fuzhou, China.
In Malay, the main river is known as Batang (meaning "trunk" in Malay) and its tributaries is known as Sungai ("river" in Malay). For example, Rajang River is known as Batang Rajang and Balleh River is known as Sungai Balleh in Malay.[note 1] For upriver areas, such as the areas surrounding the headwaters, the place is named as "Ulu" (which means "upriver") or "Hulu" in Malay. For example, "Hulu Rajang" is the upriver part of the Rajang river. For bazaars along the river that are too small to call towns, they are named as "Nanga" in the Iban language, which is located at the point which the tributaries join the main river. Examples of Nangas are: Nanga Ngemah, Nanga Dap, and Nanga Poi.[note 2] In Iban language, "Nanga" means "longhouse" and it is often followed by the name of the river that they are next to. There are also certain longhouses that use "Rumah" (meaning "house" in Malay). It often follows the name of the headman. If the headman changed, then the name of the longhouse also changed. "Long" meaning "confluence" is used by the Orang Ulu (upriver people). It is used to name the places located at the confluence between the smaller tributaries and the major river, same way as the Malay usage of the name "Kuala" (meaning river delta).
The Rajang river is the longest river system in Malaysia, measuring 350 miles (560 km). Its headwaters is located in the Nieuwenhuis mountains where it forms the political boundary between Malaysia and Indonesia. There is more than 160 inches (410 cm) of rain fall each year on the Nieuwenhuis mountain range, which forms the headwaters of Rajang. The river flows from northeast to southwest. The Punan Bah people are staying at the headwaters of the Rajang. One of the Rajang tributaries, the Balui River, flows northwest into the lands of the Kayan people and Kenyah people. There is also a great bend of the Rajang river in this region. At the western end of the great bend lies the Belaga District. Going further downstream is the Pelagus Rapids where the Iban people dominates.[note 3] The Pelagus Rapids is located at 180 miles (290 km) from the Rajang river mouth. As Balleh River join into the Rajang river, the river become broader and deeper. The broader part of the Rajang river hosted about 25% of the people of Sarawak.[note 4] At 160 miles (260 km) from the river mouth, the river started to flow from east to west. At this turning point, there is a town known as Kapit. Kapit is the last stop of express boats coming from Sibu. The town of Kapit is inhabited by the Chinese, Iban, and Kayan people.[note 5]
Further downriver are the smaller towns such as Song which is located at the mouth of the Katibas River. At about 120 miles (190 km) from the sea, there are Mixed Zone Lands. These lands can be owned both the Chinese and the Iban people. The lands are divided into parcels measuring several acres, where smallholders clear the land for agricultural activities.[note 6] In the midst of these Mixed Zone Lands at 105 miles (169 km) miles from the sea, there is a town named Kanowit. The river near Kanowit is 0.5 miles (0.80 km) wide.[note 7]
The biggest town by the river is Sibu, some 80 miles (130 km) upriver from the mouth of the Rajang. It can be reached by ocean-going vessels. Sibu is the political, economic, cultural, and education centre of the central region of Sarawak.[note 8] Other towns which are located further downriver are Sarikei and Bintangor. These two towns are mainly settled by the Chinese. Tanjung Manis is located near the Rajang River delta where the Malay and Melanau people dominates.[note 9] Bruit Island is situated inside the Rajang delta, with a light house at the Sirik Point.
The population of the Rajang River was very low in the 19th century during the Bruneian Empire. The natives living along the river traded several forest products with Malay traders from Brunei. At that time, the Melanau, Kanowit, and Rajang ethnic groups were living downriver; Bhuket, Punan Bah, Lugat, Sihan, and Kejaman ethnic groups lived at the middle section of the river; and with Penan and Seping living in the upriver area. After the 19th century, the Kayan and Kenyah migrated to the Balui river from the present day Indonesian Kalimantan. Meanwhile, the Iban people migrated from the West Kalimantan to the lower Rajang valley while conducting shifting cultivation. With introduction of new tribes in the Rajang basin, inter-ethnic battles became rife. Some ethnic groups fled to Balingian and Tatau rivers to avoid the conflict.
In the late 19th century, the Brooke government started to construct forts along the Rajang River in order to ensure political stability in the Rajang basin. The Chinese then started to move inland and settle near the forts and trade various forest products with the natives. In 1884, Belaga fort and trading market was constructed. It soon became the political and economic centre of the district. Subsequently, government offices, schools, a bank, a police station, a mosque, and churches were built around the fort. In 1997, Bakun Dam construction was started at the upper Balui River. Many longhouses and villages in this area was resettled at the Sungai Asap resettlement scheme. Sungai Asap is connected to Bakun Dam through the Bakun road.
During Sarawak Communist Insurgency, Sarawak government set up the "Rajang Special Security Area" on 25 March 1973. A day later, Rajang Security Command (RASCOM) was formed as a result of co-operation of civil, military, and police command headquarters. These measures were taken to clamp down communist activities in the Rajang delta.
On 6 October 2010, heavy rain have caused a massive landslide that brought logs and debris down into the Balleh river, tributaries above Kapit, and then into the Rajang river. It was estimated that the volume of the logs and debris had exceeded 300, 000 m3. This logjam had also affected the Igan river. The log debris, stretching 50 km long, had reached Sibu on 8 October. The logjam had caused transportation difficulties for the people living alongside the river and dead fish were also seen on the river. As on 2 November 2012, Global Witness revealed that the logging operation of Interglobal Empire, a subsidiary of WTK group of companies, in the logging concession T/3476 was responsible for the landslide into Melatai River which subsequently blocked the Rajang River. Similar logjam recurred in early 2017 at the upper reaches of the Balui river.
A total of 30 species of mammals are recorded along the Rajang basin in 2004. The mouth of the river is the only place where the dolphins can be sighted. Totally protected mammals include gibbon, langurs, black giant squirrel, slow loris, and tarsier. Civets, otters, bats, treeshrew, and primates are also included under Sarawak Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998. Wild pigs and deers are the most frequently hunted animals by the locals while primates can be hunted incidentally.
122 species of birds were sighted along the Rajang basin in 2004. 21 species were recorded along the mouth of the river while 96 species were recorded in Hose Mountains and 88 species at Lanjak Entimau which are located in the interior of Sarawak. The only endemic species of birds located at Rajang basin is Dusky munia which is found abundantly in paddy fields. Other species of birds which are commonly found along the Rajang basin are: Pacific swallow, Little spiderhunter, and Asian glossy starling. 20 species of birds (mainly eagles, egret, kingfishers, woodpeckers) are protected while 7 species of birds (mainly Hornbill and Pheasant) are totally protected under the Sarawak Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.
A total of 164 fish species has been recorded at the Rajang basin in 2005. Empurau (Tor tambroides) and Semah (Tor douronensis) fish are considered popular fishes among the locals. Empurau fish is still found breeding near the upper tributaries of Rajang such as Balleh River and near the Bakun Dam.
The major economic activity in the upper reaches of the Rajang River is logging. Among the type of wood that are extracted for exports are: Ramin, plywood, Kapur, Meranti, Keruing, and Belian. Rice is the dominant crop among the middle part of the Rajang river. Trading of Engkabang fruits was prevalent in the 1970s. Other agricultural activities in the Rajang basin are: rubber and pepper cultivation, poultry domestication, and vegetables planting.[note 10]
Rajang Port Authority (RPA) is the main regulatory body to coordinate the trade activities of all the 5 river ports along the Rajang river. RPA serves to provide maintenance, adequate and efficient port services for all users of the ports. It is located at the Sibu port operation centre Sibu and Sungai Merah can be assessed via a shorter route through Paloh river where the distances from the mouth of the river can be shortened to 82 km and 92 km respectively. In the year 2012, RPA recorded a total revenue of RM 30.1 million although its total cargo throughput went down from 5.0 million to 3.2 million tonnes from the previous year. The 5 river ports along the Rajang river (arranged by their distances from the river mouth) are:
- Tanjung Manis (30 km, maximum Gross register tonnage (GRT): 32,000 tonnes, mainly for handling logs and timber products)
- Sarikei (49 km, maximum GRT: 3,000 tonnes, mainly for handling agricultural products and consumer goods around Sarikei area)
- Bintangor (66 km, maximum GRT: 2,500 tonnes)
- Sibu (113 km, maximum GRT: 10,000 tonnes, mainly for handling timber and agricultural products)
- Sungai Merah (Near Sibu, 116 km, maximum GRT: 2,500 tonnes, mainly for handling fuel oil products)
Pandaw River Cruise was started on 1 July 2009 in order to boost tourism activities along the Rajang River. It was a nine-day cruising starting from Express Wharf Terminal of Sibu to Pelagus Rapids Resort in Kapit. The tourists can go hiking and visiting long houses and towns during the ride. However, this programme has been terminated in March 2012 because of logistical and operational difficulties. During 2017 Visit Sibu Year, longhouse visits along the Rajang River was promoted as an ecotourism product. Crocodiles which are living by the river banks became the mascot for the event.
The town of Sibu can be assessed by oceangoing vessels for 80 miles (130 km) while an additional 100 miles (160 km) of the river can be assessed by shallow-draft craft. The remaining parts of the river which leads into the Sarawak interior can only be assessed by small canoes. Speedboats and longboats are the major form of transport between Kapit and Belaga. Transportation above Belaga to Balui River requires longboats. Rajang River also serves to transport logs down the river. Some areas in the interior are only accessible through river during the monsoon season. Meanwhile, for the towns located at the downriver, market merchants have to take care of their own belongings from being flooded.[note 11]
Logging operations are rampant on the upstream of Rajang river. A major study conducted along the Rajang river from May to December 2004 found out that the main channel of the Rajang river was turbid except for smaller tributaries. The water transparency was about 4 cm to 5 cm at that time. Based on Taxonomic richness index, the stretch of upstream river between Kanowit and Belaga river is recovering from logging 15 to 20 years ago with the exception of Penaan river because the local community uses toxic chemicals to capture fish. The stretch of river downstream from Lebaan to Selalang river is considered unclean.
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