Published in Asian Water Wire of IPS 2007
Right across the river just two minutes by spear-shaped speed boat is a marble floored three storey upmarket shopping complex manned by mainly Filipino shop assistants; and as you go further a field you pass through modern apartment blocks and bungalows with lush green gardens with all modern amenities, yet, most people living in the Brunei’s “water village” here known as Kampong Ayer are not willing to move to land accommodation, even when free housing is available from a generous government flushed with petro-dollars.
“For four hundred years from generation to generation we have lived here. This is our heritage, we own the houses and we will not let this community to die” said Mokti bin Salleh, headman of Kampong Ramoi, one of the village units which make up the historic Kampong Ayer community, where over 25,000 people live on houses built over water on stills.
The history of Kampong Ayer goes back to at least the 16th century where written documents have been found of an Italian traveller describing a village of 25,000 people living on water. This community for many centuries is believed to have been the centre of a thriving community of people who ruled much of the region trading in many goods.
Built on the part of the Brunei River which expands into a virtual lake at this point, Kampong Ayer is the world’s largest silted water village or perhaps more precisely a city – with 28 separate kampongs (village units) complete with schools, medical clinics, mosques, shops, petrol stations and markets. There are even waterborne police and fire services, as well as garbage collectors.
Speaking to IPS seated in his air conditioned living room of the wooden house built on top of the water and adorned with pictures of dignitaries who have visited his house, such as former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo and former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamed, Salleh said that he has 11 children and 30 grand children, some of whom now live on land. One of his sons even works with the Brunei Investment Agency in London. Yet, the aging headman believes that Kampong Ayer is not going to be deserted by the younger generation, and he is keen to build a museum here to educate them about its rich history, as well as encourage the government to build more modern housing in the river community.
“Before the discovery of oil in 1929, Bruneians were involved in trading, fishing and other marine activities and settlements and were confined to ‘water villages’, which were compatible with these activities” observed Zarina Abu Adenan, Head of the valuation section of the Lands Department in a recent paper.
“ Back then, Bruneian did not own land. They owned rivers where certain classes of people have rights to collect revenues from land near these rivers or from inhabitants along the rivers. Some of the rivers can be passed down to heirs and some people living near the rivers became slaves, as they were considered part and parcel of the land” she added.
Today, people who live in the houses built on stills over water and connected by snaking timber walkways do not own the river, but they own the houses they live on. “How can we own water which is flowing underneath?” asked a local resident who gave her name as Liza, and looked to be in her late 30s, when IPS put the question of ownership to her. Another resident, 22 year old office worker Fatima added while crossing the river on boat from her workplace to the home, “even though we can become landowners (if we shift), we prefer to live here among our friends and relatives”.
Many residents here even own cars, but what is parked underneath their houses are boats, which they use to cross the river, where the cars are parked along parking spaces allocated to them along the river bank. They then drive their cars to work and for shopping in the city.
Salleh explained that when they have many children and they grow up, they used to build another house (on stills) next to their’s, and they did not have to get anyone’s permission to do so. Once it is built they own the house. But today, there are laws, which governs the building of new houses on water.
“Now we have to get the permission of the government and for that we have to get five neighbours to support our building application” he said. “They have to sign a form obtained from the district office”.
Since the 1960s, the government has been providing infrastructure facilities to the water villages such as piped water, sanitation and sewerage facilities for which they have to pay a fee – for B$ 15 (US$ 9.50) a month, the government now provides a daily garbage collection for which the residents have to go and place the garbage at a certain point in the village. Yet, many residents have been used to throwing the garbage through the windows to the river, which at high tide deposits on the river banks.
In the olden days when most rubbish was organic this did not create such a health risk as now, where most rubbish are of plastic or polystyrene which are not the diet of the monkeys on the banks and fish in the river. Thus, the authorities are now cracking down on the practice while ensuring that the sub-contractors commissioned to keep their river clean do their job properly.
In recent years, there have also been a number of major fires – one government officials said at least 8 in the past 10 years – which have destroyed many wooden houses. “ Since many people in Brunei still prefer to live on water, the government has decided to build them concrete kampongs” he told IPS.
Three such communities have been built since 1994 funded under the country’s ruling family’s Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Foundation programme to build housing for indigenous people. These kampongs, namely Kampung Bolkiah ‘A’, Kampung Bolkiah ‘B’ and Kampung Sungai Bunga are paved with concrete pathways and the houses are built on concrete stills and brick walls. Vacuum sewerage system with secondary sewage treatment plants have been installed on all houses.
As Brunei embarks on developing a tourist industry to reap in revenue once its oil resources begins to deplete – according to estimates from 2020 onwards- Kampong Ayer is seen as potentially a major tourist attraction in the region. Thus, next year the government is planning to introduce a major redevelopment scheme to “beautify” the community, which according to the government official will include constructing concrete pathways to replace the crickety wooden ones and “fire-breakers” in the building planning policy to avoid future fires, which on more than three occasions in the last decade has threatened to destroy Brunei’s important heritage.
Meanwhile for the aging community leaders like Salleh, the challenge is to keep their grand children in the community. “Most young people want to live on land. They are no more making a living fishing, they work in government offices” he pointed out. “ For them taking a boat (which have no roofs) on a rainy day to work is a problem. If they live on land they can go to work by car”.