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Over 8000 People In Rural Sabah Tapped Into Clean Water And Now They Have Livestock And Income

Everything starts from water. We drink it to survive, water cleanses and nourishes nature. Many of us in the urban parts of Malaysia are accustomed to and dread the sporadic water cuts that affected households and enterprises for days on end. However, in the rural areas, the absence of clean water is a predicament that they have been living in. 

Source: The Star

The access to piped water in rural areas of Peninsular Malaysia has increased from 42% to 96% in 2020. However, Sabah and Sarawak still lag, with only recorded 62% coverage of piped water in 2020[1]

Cited factors include the topographic challenges of Borneo with many undulating hills, difficult road access and scattered population. Pipe connections would have to be laid out across vast areas to provide running water to rural communities[1].

The lack of water coverage and access to clean water is a plight familiar to the villagers in Kota Belud in Sabah. To many of us, clean water is as easy as turning the faucet. But to the villagers in Kadamaian, it places them in a risky position for their daily water ration. 

To get water, villagers would sometimes need to travel to rivers or small streams to collect water to bring back home (can be dangerous for children and the elderly). During droughts when the villagers’ water supply is even more unstable. families would have to travel to town from their remote villages to buy mineral water for their needs. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director

The water scarcity trickles into food insecurity among the villagers as they are unable to grow crops to feed their families and provide a small income to their households. Many had to travel to nearby towns to purchase food items.

Kota Belud On The Map

Despite the state of Sabah teeming with natural resources and tourism sites, the state recorded the highest level of absolute poverty in Malaysia at 19.5% (41,490 individuals) [2,3].

Kota Belud is among the districts with a high percentage of people living in absolute poverty at 34.0%. The district with the highest percentage is Tongod at 56.6% [2]

The Kota Belud district has over 74 rural and poverty-stricken villages that are hard to get to[4].The dilapidated roads have only added to the rural families’ struggle to survive.

Narrowing Their Focus 

Based in Kota Kinabalu, the core value of Hopes Malaysia is to ensure their projects are deeply rooted in the communities they serve.  

Hours of research and planning had to take place before the organisation started working amongst the Kota Belud rural community. The Kadamaian area was pinpointed as their project area due to alarming signs that necessitate help. 

The first sign when a community needs help would be when a village does not have a proper and clean water supply for their daily needs. This affects families and makes life more challenging. Everything starts from water. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director

Hopes Malaysia narrowed their focus to serve communities residing on the hillside, where the community relied on natural water sources such as mountain streams and inconsistent rainwater for their daily needs. 

Source: Hopes Malaysia Personal Archive

The villagers consisting of low-income earners, retirees and housewives have missed out on greater economic opportunities due to abysmal infrastructure[3]. Households living in rural areas such as in Kadamaian procure food through travelling to nearby cities, as water scarcity had impeded any attempts of farming. 

Over time, the heavy reliance on having to buy food and fresh produce is unsustainable because 90% of the villagers have no stable source of income and most of them are in the B40 income group[4]

Giving Communities Access To Clean Water

The Gravity Water Project that was launched in 2016 gave rural villages direct access to clean water through building and installation of gravity water systems. Although a costly feat, Hopes Malaysia was able to raise enough money to build seven gravity water systems for villages in Kota Belud[4]

One of the villages that Hopes Malaysia had transformed was Kampung Podos, a settlement of at least 900 villagers[5]. The village had an existing piping system built in the 1980s but was no longer in good condition. 

Source: Hopes Malaysia Personal Archive

The village’s first piping system was built in the 1980s when its initial piping lines were only one inch in diameter. Due to issues such as wear and tear from age and corrosion, the pipes have undergone many leakages, resulting in low water pressure from the water source to the village. – Soumin Sadah, Kampung Podos village chief[5]

In 2019, Hopes Malaysia stepped in and upgraded the piped water system with the help of volunteers over three months.

The installation took around three months to complete. Twelve volunteers helped to carry bricks, sand, pipes and cement along the hiking trails and crossed rivers to build the water catchment. It was an uphill task to install the 4.5km poly pipes, but thankfully, we had excellent team effort. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director[5]

The residents of Kampung Podos no longer face water scarcity and reduce the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as cholera. 

Without the upgraded pipes, villagers would have to continue walking 15 minutes to the nearby stream to bathe, wash clothes and carry pails of water back to their homes. And during the dry season, everyone had to harvest rainwater and store it in large bins. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director [5]

Long-Term Changes Is The Key To Break Rural Poverty 

Food insecurity has been a concern amongst the rural communities in Kota Belud and the pandemic has only magnified the issue. It was estimated that 9.76 million (30%) of Malaysians faced food insecurity during the pandemic[6]

Due to the scarcity of water and soil infertility in the Kota Belud rural community, villagers have been experiencing food insecurity in addition to soil infertility. Monoculture farming has also severely emptied soil of nutrients for the past decades. 

Source: Hopes Malaysia Personal Archive

Farmers were unable to grow a variety of fresh produce to either eat or sell, affecting their families’ health and income. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director

One of the farmers, Puan Lijah, a rubber tapper from Kampung Ratau, had found it difficult to lay food on the table for six other family members. 

I have been making a living by rubber tapping. Food was always bought outside. – Puan Lijah, a rubber tapper from Kampung Ratau

Puan Lijah’s monthly food expenses previously required RM500 to be forked out. There are also hidden costs as she would have to pay for transportation to be able to go to town for food, the trips consumed most of the household income, adding to the existing financial burden.

Source: Hopes Malaysia Personal Archive

As water supply is no longer a denominator that inhibits food production, Hopes Malaysia is empowering villagers with the necessary tools both in materials and knowledge to grow fresh produce in their respective areas.

Growing vegetables for self-consumption allows families to utilise their land to provide food security, especially during food crises. With farming, food is readily available for their daily needs anytime. Rural families live healthier and are also able to earn income by selling their extra harvests to neighbouring rural communities. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director

Source: Hopes Malaysia Personal Archive

In the past, the rural communities have been selling low-value crops in small quantities. But with their involvement in small-scale sustainable farming run by Hopes, things are slowly looking up for the families.

Since she had started farming, food expenses were the least of her concerns. Now, Puan Lijah and her family were able to save a portion of their household income.  

My farm is just 800m from my house. Now, I no longer need to spend a lot on food. – Puan Lijah, a rubber tapper from Kampung Ratau 

Hopes Malaysia has also extended their programme to include fish and poultry farming. Both programmes have allowed the community to have a balanced meal while generating consistent income through harvesting 70kg of fish monthly and 60 chicken eggs daily[4]

Providing Avenues For Profits 

However, the imposed travel restrictions during the pandemic has hampered their selling efforts resulting in unsold goods. The Tamu Kita Benefit Bags, a collaboration between Heineken Malaysia and Hopes Malaysia found a solution to this problem. The unsold or extra goods were bought and distributed to affected B40 families, children’s homes and centres for the disabled. The initiative enabled them to distribute more than 50,000 kgs of produce to vulnerable communities in various parts of Sabah[7].

Women from rural villages are often sidelined when it comes to income opportunities. Hopes Malaysia is changing that mindset through their #Womenpreneurship initiative. The Gerai Tamu Kita that recently opened in Kampung Ratau is operated by women and offer over 10 types of vegetables and goods.So far, the initiative has narrowed the gap of gender inequalities in rural communities and generated revenue for households of RM 10,000 since January 2022.

Source: Hopes Malaysia Personal Archive

Farmers are earning more than 50% more on a monthly basis from their baseline B40 household income.

Farmers do not need to travel far to sell their vegetables to the local community. This is a more sustainable method in the long run. Our farmers are achieving economic sustainability while helping others in the community. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director

A Promising Venture For The Rural Households

Hopes Malaysia started with the founder’s need to create sustainable change in the community. It is a goal that is well on its way as the community in Kadamaian is gradually becoming self-sustaining. 

Over 8,000 lives have been transformed through improved access to clean water since 2016[4]. Moreso, 80 households from 8 different villages are spending less on food and are on their way to generating better income through sustainable farming[4].

Source: Hopes Malaysia Personal Archive

But, there have been hiccups along the way for Hopes Malaysia. Being an emerging NGO, funding and manpower remains challenging to the organisation.

Many remote villages are still in dire need of assistance, which is why we are constantly on the lookout to collaborate with corporates via CSR partnerships to deepen our impact in Sabah’s rural communities. Manpower can sometimes be a hurdle too, we have only 5 members to plan and execute projects on a local community level. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director

Despite the shortcomings, Hopes Malaysia is always doing their very best to help rural communities as the pandemic has only worsened existing issues such as higher living costs. 

Life is now much harder for rural families with these worsened issues, making our work all the more urgent and necessary. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director

Source: Hopes Malaysia Personal Archive

Driven by the success they have witnessed in villages in Kadamaian, Hopes Malaysia is aiming to transform more rural villages in Kota Belud with long-term initiatives and empowerment. 

We have to change the mindset of relying on short-term aid or “tongkat policies” to break the rural poverty cycle. We need to start by understanding the community’s actual needs, tackling basic necessities and sustainably empowering them for impactful results. – Sam Lee, Hopes Malaysia founder and executive director

It is Sam Lee’s greatest hope that one day in the near future, Kota Belud would no longer be known as one of the “poorest districts in Malaysia” but a thriving rural area.

HOPES Malaysia is  currently seeking for CSR projects and funding to carry out two urgent gravity water projects in two villages in Kota Belud; Kampung Melangkap Tiong and Kampung Tinata. The communities in both villages are in desperate need of proper water supply and clean water. The organisation can be reached via email at or +60109072801 for more information.

Explore our sources:

  1. P.Karunakaran., M.S.Osman., L.M.Nyomui., C.L.Sabang, P.Karunakaran., and S.Karunakaran. (2021). Water Supply System for a Rural Village in Malaysia.7(1). Asian Journal Of Convergence Technology. Link
  2. Department Of Statistics Malaysia. (2019). Household Income And Basic Amenities Survey Report 2019: Sabah. Link
  3. J.Santos (2022).. 86,766 individuals categorised as hardcore poor in Sabah. The Vibes. Link 
  4. Hopes Malaysia. Our Works. Link
  5. S.Chandran. (2021).#Star50: Rural Sabah community gets access to piped water through Star Foundation and Hopes Malaysia initiative. The Star. Link 
  6. UNICEF. (2020).Addressing Malaysia’s nutrition crisis post- COVID-19:Time for nutrition-focused social protection. Link
  7. The Star. (2022). Breaking cycle of poverty with hope. Link

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