Case study on river management: Kinabatangan | WWF
© WWF / Soh Koon CHNG

Case study on river management: Kinabatangan

Sunset on the Kinabatangan river, Sabah, Malaysia.

Case study on river management: Kinabatangan

The Kinabatangan River is the largest and longest river in the Malaysian state of Sabah. It has a main channel length of about 560 km, a catchment area of about 16,800 km² and covers almost 23% of the total land area of Sabah.

Sunset on the Kinabatangan river, Sabah, Malaysia. rel= © WWF / Soh Koon CHNG

Mean annual rainfall in the catchment is between 2,500 mm and 3,000 mm. Flooding is common along the Kinabatangan, with major flood events causing serious damage to livelihoods and property in 1963, 1967, 1986 and 1996.

The Kinabatangan floodplain is the largest remaining forested floodplain in Sabah and the lower stretches of the Kinabatangan River contain some of the few surviving freshwater swamp rainforests and oxbow lakes in South-East Asia.

These evergreen swamp rainforests are of global significance for biodiversity conservation.

Socio-economic importance
The river, used for transport, trade and communication, has been the lifeblood of local people for centuries. Forest products such as edible birds’ nests and bees' wax, elephant ivory and hornbill casques were once traded. Nowadays there are about 20 palm oil mills in the Kinabatangan basin, which process the produce from rapidly expanding oil palm plantations. The oil is used in the production of margarine, soap, livestock feed, lubricants, and many other industrial and household products.

Large-scale commercial logging and small-scale farming began along the Kinabatangan in the early 1950s. This provided the people of Sabah with income and employment. Several forest reserves were created in the 1970s, but these were quickly reallocated for agricultural use.

The lower Kinabatangan, with its unique biodiversity, is also increasingly recognized as a destination for ecotourism and local people are becoming involved in this activity.