Friday, June 20, 2008

Sarawak's 12 new dams alarm environmentalists

Fauwaz Abdul Aziz
Jun 19, 08 1:46pm

Sarawak has proposed to build 12 massive dams in the next decade to harness its hydroelectric power, putting the state in a collision course with environmentalists.

The bold plan, which has not been made public, has irked activists who fear further destruction to Sarawak’s rainforests - considered as one of the world’s oldest - and the forcible relocation of thousands of indigenous peoples.

While the state does not need more power, it hopes to generate electricity for energy-guzzling industries and for export - both to Peninsular Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia.

Half of the power produced by the controversial Bakun dam is expected to be consumed by an aluminum smelter to be built in Bintulu by mining multinational Rio Tinto, while the rest will be transported to Peninsular Malaysia through undersea cables.

The mega-smelter is a joint project between Rio Tinto and Cahya Mata Sarawak, a conglomerate owned by family members of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.

Document made public ‘accidentally’

Sarawak’s bold ambition of generating a colossal 7,000MW of electricity between 2008 and 2020 - which include the 2,400MW Bakun dam - was unwittingly revealed in document made available on a China-based website.

The document appeared to be a slide presentation made by Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB) managing director Abdul Aziz Husain in October last year at the China-Asean Power Cooperation and Development Forum in Nanning, China.

According to Abdul Aziz, Sarawak's rivers have the potential to generate a total of 20,000KW of power.

Published ‘accidentally’ on the website dedicated to the international forum, it was discovered by Switzerland-based NGO Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF).

According to BMF, an organisation set up by Swiss environmentalist Burno Manser who spent six years with Sarawak’s Penan and subsequently went missing in 2000, the document has since been removed.

But before the document was taken down, BMF was able to make a copy and it is now made available on the organisation’s website [available as PDF file].

A quick search on the Internet revealed such a document - entitled ‘Chinese Power Plants in Malaysia – Present & Future Development’ - had existed, but can no longer be found.

Mulu National Park at risk

The 48-page document provides the specific locations of the 12 new hydropower plants, aside from Bakun dam, which is to be completed in 2010 [see map].

The construction of the RM3.2 billion Bakun dam - the region’s largest dam - wiped out a swatch of rainforests the size of Singapore and displaced 10,000 indigenous peoples.

Understandably, environmentalists fear the worst on hearing the state government’s proposal for another dozen of hydropower plants.

If the plan, described by BMF as “excessive”, is to proceed, hundreds of Sarawak’s native communities in Sarawak’s interior will lose their traditional lands and have to be relocated to elsewhere.

“It is to be expected that all of the proposed dams will adversely affect indigenous communities living in Borneo's unique tropical rainforest environment,” warned BMF in a press statement.

National treasures such as the world-renowned Mulu National Park may also fall victim when parts of it will be submerged under the planned 220 megawatts dam on the Tutoh river in northeastern Sarawak.

The Mulu National Park is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) as a world heritage site because of its biodiversity and its extensive network of caves.

No public participation in EIAs

BMF slammed the state government for its lack of transparency in land and forest matters, pointing out that Sarawak legislation does not obligate developers to include public participation in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process.

The NGO also decried that the natives, as in the past, are likely to be “doomed to pay the price for the production of export energy”.

None of SEB’s top officials, including Abdul Aziz, could be reached for comments.

Meanwhile, state DAP deputy chairperson Chiew Chin Sing said the state government should put the interests of Sarawak people before those of multinational corporations.

The Kidurong state assemblyperson added that delivering electricity through 700km of undersea cables to Peninsular Malaysia would result in tremendous wastage.

“Also we cannot deny the indigenous communities their right to their land,” Chiew told Malaysiakini yesterday.

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