Note: This story initially was published in Going Places, the in-flight magazine of Malaysia Airlines, and is being reposted with permission on Coca-Cola Journey.

All eyes are on Sadin Limun as he turns on the newly installed tap in Kampung Kalampun's common area. The sight of cold water gushing out, which many of us take for granted, brings wide grins to everyone's faces. "It's much easier now," Sadin, the 57-year-old village chief, says enthusiastically. "Much more convenient."

Surrounded by lush jungles, Kampung Kalampun in the east Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island is home to about 150 villagers from the Murut tribe, who mostly work in palm oil plantations. The village is well-organised and has electricity, a kindergarten and school, and a spacious community hall.

But up until recently, villagers relied on a rainwater harvesting system for their daily drinking, washing and cleaning needs. On days when the rains failed, the womenfolk hiked to a river two kilometres away to collect water in buckets. Now, each household is served by an improved public water supply from four tanks in the village, thanks to youth-based charity Raleigh Borneo, which came in to install a gravity-fed water system (GFWS).

The charity is a branch of Raleigh International, a non-profit organisation dedicated to developing youth leaders through community programmes in Malaysia, Nicaragua, Nepal, Costa Rica and Tanzania. Its programmes mostly revolve around water and sanitation, and a majority of its volunteers are between 17 and 25 years old. 

In Sabah, Raleigh works with Coca-Cola Malaysia, Asian Forestry Company Sabah and local NGO Partners of Community Organisations (PACOS) through a project called Clean Water For Communities. Under the initiative, volunteers spend weeks in a rural community to build gravity-fed water systems (GFWS) and toilets, so that villages can enjoy access to clean water and sanitation. 

Since its inception in 2006, the programme has reached over 20,000 people from 42 villages across Sabah. “The need for clean water in rural parts of Malaysia is a hidden need. Unless you’re willing to come out into the remote regions, you won’t be able to see it,” says Rashida Bhaiji, Raleigh Borneo’s Country Programme Manager. 

To identify communities in need, Raleigh works with PACOS for technical expertise, networking and understanding of local customs. Once a village is chosen, it will meet up with the community for a baseline survey and asset mapping. Certain criteria must also be met.

The water source, usually a river, must not be polluted and should be free from chemicals or fertilisers. It should also be located on higher ground. Next, the villagers have to agree to participate and maintain the facilities. “We want to ensure that the system is sustainable in the long run, and that the villagers will have the knowledge and skills to repair or expand on existing infrastructure,” Rashida elaborates. 

Putting up toilets in Kampung Kalampun
Putting up toilets in Kampung Kalampun

Basic training is provided before each project. No professional experience is required as long as a site manager is on hand to supervise. The team then goes to work, clearing a path through the jungle, constructing a dam at the water source, installing polypipes and connecting them to storage tanks in the village. Each project takes about six weeks to complete and depending on a community’s needs and the geographical location, can cost between USD450 and USD1,100 (RM2,000-RM5,000). 

Kadri, Sadin, Rashida and children from the village testing out the tap for the first time
Kadri (front left), Sadin (in white), Rashida (in green) and children from the village testing out the tap for the first time

Eris Choo

Beyond improving the quality of life of those in need, Rashida points out that the programme is about building connections, developing future leaders and inspiring youths in local communities. “A lot of our young people are energetic and passionate, and this can be channelled into serious development work. When they interact with youths in the local communities, it empowers and encourages everyone to aspire for more, no matter their background,” she stresses. 

Volunteers and villagers often sleep, eat and work on a project together. In Kampung Kalampun, one can see the profound impact volunteers have had on the locals and vice versa, despite their short stay. Basic English phrases written on manila cardboards are plastered all over the community hall, as are art pieces done by the local children together with the volunteers. 

It takes six weeks to complete a project
It takes six weeks to complete a project

Peter Lopeman

During the opening ceremony to turn on the taps, the locals performed a Murut dance and prepared a feast for the volunteers. In return, the volunteers composed a song about their stay, which they sang on stage to much laughter and giggling from the audience. 

Sadin thinks it has been a great experience for everyone, despite the cultural and language barriers. “Even though we come from different backgrounds and don’t speak the same language, we’ve learnt a lot from each other. At night, our women teach the volunteers how to make our traditional handicrafts. We’re also proud to show them our Murut dances and songs,” he says.

Volunteers teaching local children English during their free time
Volunteers teaching local children English during their free time

Despite the programme’s obvious benefits, Rashida says funding remains one of their biggest challenges. “Over 88 percent of households in Malaysia have access to clean water, so it’s hard to justify to funders why they should give us money to build a GFWS in Sabah when they could give the money to someone in Tanzania,” she says. 

Thankfully with corporations like Coca-Cola Malaysia, Raleigh Borneo has been able to fill the funding gap. The beverage giant, which has spent more than USD220,000 (RM1 million) on the project so far, has pledged to continue funding it for another two years. This is in line with the company’s commitment to good water practices, says its public affairs and communications director Kadri Taib.

“Water is one of life’s most crucial necessities. We want the villagers to have the convenience of having water channelled directly into their homes, allowing them more time and energy to devote to productive activities,” he says. 

Gravity-fed water systems help to provide clean water to villages
Gravity-fed water systems help to provide clean water to villages

Peter Lopeman

“We intend to return to communities and to nature an amount of water equivalent to what is used in our beverages and production by 2020, and we are working towards that through more community water projects,” he adds. 

Raleigh targets to reach another 10,000 people in rural Sabah under its Clean Water For Communities project. It also plans to expand its network across the region while encouraging Malaysian youths to participate in its volunteer programme. “Between 2017 and 2020, we would like to see at least 32 Malaysians and maybe 10 international volunteers on any given expedition,” says Rashida. 

To volunteer, register online at raleighborneo.org.