Why new mega-dams have no place in Sarawak’s energy future

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File diagram: Possible hydro projects in Sarawak

Save Rivers lists six reasons for rejecting more mega dams in Sarawak.As reported in the Borneo Post on 8 July 2020, Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari announced that mega dams will be key to propel Sarawak’s economy into 2030.

In his statement, the Chief Minister claimed that the state’s sustainable energy future would be reliant on expanding its hydroelectric capacity.

Save Rivers asserts that this statement is out of step with projected energy needs, out of step with environmental science, out of step with community needs and out of step with the wishes of former Chief Minister Adenan Satem, who before his death stated that there would be no future for mega-dams in Sarawak.

1) Projected energy needs show no need for mega dams to be built

Researchers have shown that building mega-dams does not make economic sense in the tropics.

A study from the University of California at Berkeley of the proposed Baram dam in 2015 found no evidence of economic benefit. Instead, it found that Sarawak’s scheduled dams would be a net drag on the economy and generate energy far in excess of projected needs.

With the Bakun and Murum dams running well below capacity, Sarawak is already a literal powerhouse with plenty of capacity for energy generation. There is no future market for building more new dams.

2) Tropical mega dams are not environmentally sustainable

The global impacts of mega-dams are well documented. Annually, billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere as a result of decomposing materials located at the bottom of tropical dam reservoirs.

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The construction of mega-dams drastically transforms river systems and their surrounding environments, affecting communities who rely heavily on rivers as part of their daily life.

4) There are better ways to meet Sarawak’s energy needs

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report urged a prompt alteration to low-carbon renewable sources of electricity.

For Sarawak’s economy to experience healthy, positive growth, investing in renewable energy such as wind, solar and micro-hydro is the right choice. There is no need to sacrifice rivers for zero-carbon energy. Truly renewable energy can be delivered through these rapid, smaller-scale and lower-risk systems, resulting in less conflict when compared to hydroelectric dams.

5) Mega dams have not delivered for displaced communities

There is no success story with the Murum and Bakun dams in the Belaga district. Many indigenous communities living close to the dams are still deprived of 24-hour electricity supply, treated water and real road connectivity. They are provided with empty promises and are left without their land and natural resources.

“The Bakun Dam submerged an area of 700 sq km of forest, farmland and villages, where 10,000 indigenous community members from 15 villages were displaced and resettled in Sungai Asap,” Save Rivers chairman Peter Kallang explains. “In Sungai Asap, most of them are still struggling to make a living while in their original villages, they had vast land for farming, hunting and foraging.”

6) Mega-dams go against the wishes of former Chief Minister Adenan Satem

Peter Kallang also points out that Abang Johari’s policy is not in line with his predecessor, Adenan Satem, who, prior to his untimely demise, asserted that Sarawak had no need for new dams.

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“Building another mega-dam does not seem to be consistent with Adenan’s policy,” Peter says. “The modern international trend is for small-scale and green-power sources which have minimum impact on the environment and the ecosystem.”

Adenan had said, in an interview with Channel News Asia in May 2016, the reason for scrapping the Baram dam in the state was that there was no need to have another big dam. “We can have mini dams and so on, but not big dams, especially when we don’t supply (power) to West Malaysia anymore,” he was quoted as saying.

Abang Johari should open his eyes to the impact Bakun Dam has had on indigenous people. Their relocation has robbed them of their identity and heritage. Also, the promises of a better future after relocation are a far cry from the reality on the ground.

Instead of focusing on building more destructive dams, the Sarawak state government should look into safe and clean alternatives which the majority of the people will agree with.

Save Rivers is a civil society organisation which advocates for and empowers rural communities to protect and restore lands, rivers and watersheds through research, training and capacity building.

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