Can proposed Baram Dam withstand an earthquake?

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The site of the proposed Baram Dam

The earthquake in Sabah on 5 June is a stern warning of the potential disaster which the proposed Baram Dam could bring, warns Save Rivers.

But proponents of the dam, especially Sarawak Energy Bhd, seem to be taking a lackadaisical attitude towards this impending hazard. The approach taken by Sarawak Energy Bhd regarding dam building is in contrast to professionalism and international standards.

Based on a front page article in The Borneo Post on 10 June 2015 entitled “Hidden danger underground” the Sabah earthquake and the proposed Baram Dam, brought contradictory comments from two key persons on seismological studies and mega dams.

One is a professional geologist, Alexander Yan, a member of the Board of Geologists Malaysia, Member of the Institute of Geologists Malaysia and former director of the Minerals and Geoscience Department. The other was a comment by Torstein Dale Sjotviet, the Chief Executive Officer of Sarawak Energy Bhd.

Based on a seismotectonic map which Yan used and published in The Borneo Post on 10 June, the proposed site for the Baram dam is in “close vicinity of two fault lines”. Yan highlighted that the fault line study must be carried out before the proposed Baram Dam is constructed, and the dam must not be built on an active fault line.

But Sjotviet was recently quoted as saying that seismological studies were basically irrelevant for the Baram and Baleh dams.

Even without the two fault lines which are in close vicinity of the proposed Baram Dam, mega dams themselves can cause earthquakes, which are called Reservoir Induced Seismicity (RIS). Based on a report done by International Rivers, “earthquakes can be induced by dams.

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Globally, there are over 100 identified cases of earthquakes that scientists believe were triggered by reservoirs. The most serious case may be the 7.9–magnitude Schuan earthquake in May 2008, which killed an estimated 80,000 people and has been linked to the construction of the Zipingpu Dam.”

The International Commission on Large Dams recommends that RIS should be considered for dams with reservoirs deeper than 100m. Based on available information, the height of the proposed Baram Dam is 162m.

When asked for comments, Desa Lawai from Long Jeh, Baram said, “SEB should scrap the plan for building the Baram Dam. Based on the professional opinion, it is a great danger. We do not want to live under that threat nor do we want to move from our homes.”

Henry Sigau from Long Tungan added, “SEB and the Sarawak state government must weigh their priority carefully because dams destroy people, forest and economy.”

Peter Kallang, the chairman of SAVE Rivers, concluded, “SEB must be professional in their approach and think long term rather than dirty and instant profit. We in Sarawak have alternative means to generate power which are sustainable, people-centered and environmentally clean.”

Save Rivers is a grassroots network of indigenous communities and civil society organizations in Sarawak, working to protect human rights and stop destructive dams in the state.

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