Sunday, August 24, 2008

Damn the dams!

Goh Leng Chua
Aug 23, 08 3:56pm

It is stated by an environmentalist: “In the conflict between nature and resource development, nature invariably loses”. The jungle rhetoric of the environmentalist is likely to be drowned by the economic benefits and the money spinning opportunities afforded by development to the nation.

If we take the two paths separately to the partial exclusion of the other, it is small wonder we end up with either damning the 12 dams or damning critics of the dams. Protectionist emotions and national pride should not be allowed to erode our approach for the mutual benefit of people and its environment. While it is the Sarawak government that dictates its own future, it is equally prudent to consider the views of third parties rather than damning them as outsider interference in our destiny. If it is the future generation’s interest that we all wish to preserve and protect, we must realise that every child and environmentalist too has his/her story to tell.


Why are environmentalists concerned? Every development undoubtedly have some significant impacts on the environment, some of which are unavoidable and irreversible. Many are nonetheless avoidable or could be mitigated when properly planned by proponents of the projects. Federal laws (Environment Quality Act 1974) require EIA reports on development impacts to be done and made public. These stricter federal requirements do not apply to Sarawak, exempting the 12 dams from EIA requirements. It was pointed out that such approval process under Sarawak’s Natural Resources and Environmental (Amendment) Ordinance 1993 leaves much to be desired in terms of transparency and accountability. State EIAs are not being scrutinized by the public, which is the main stakeholder of the environment.

It is also feared that the Sarawak government in order to support the consumption of extra electricity to be generated by the 12 dams, could offer lax environmental control to attract more industrial activities such as the proposed aluminium smelter plant in Similajau resulting in consequential environmental degradation.

Understandably, calls have been echoed to amend the state’s outdated environment laws to face the challenges of the 21st century in line with federal standards and beyond. After 45 years of independence, surely our leaders have transformed Sarawak into a knowledgeable society. The government would not be accused of such projects being covered with a veil of secrecy. What have Sarawakians got to loose if the changes make Sarawak greener?

Physical impacts

With the 12 dams being planned throughout Sarawak, the physical impacts are extensive and culturally invasive. Many of the reservoir sites are currently grounds for shifting cultivation, traditional hunting and fishing by the residents. Timber harvesting by licensed concession operators is probably the largest use within and outside the catchment areas. Site clearing and biomass removal will initiate unavoidable erosion and chronic sedimentation, with immediate impacts on the river hydrology, adversely affecting water quality and endangering aquatic life and public health in the region.

However, with modern environment technology and pools of expertise on hand the environmental impacts could be duly addressed. Mitigation measures include biomass removal plan, an Integrated Catchment Management plan on land use, reforestation in denuded areas, anti-poaching enforcement, and gazetting wider forest areas to be conserved as catchment zone protected for posterity.

It was pointed out by Deputy Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Haji Fadillah Yusof that the earthquake fault line is in the northern region of Sarawak and the potential for earthquake is in the range of 3.5 to 5.5 on the Richter scale, according to seismic study by the Malaysian Science Academy. It is therefore imperative that risk assessment on seismic hazard be duly conducted and precautionary measures be in place to respond to any eventuality. From information available, the Bakun dam would be able to withstand any seismic shocks up to 7.5 on the Richter scale. A comfortable risk margin is indeed a comforting assurance.

Overland and underwater transmission

Of concerns also are the overland transmission corridor and access roads to towers and the overhead transmission lines with their electric and magnetic fields (EMF), which tend to be ignored in many EIA reports. However, as the areas are sparsely populated, transmission line realignment avoiding human settlement would comply with the precautionary principle of the Rio Dedaration.

Exporting electricity efficiently and cheaply to Peninsula Malaysia through the planned four 500 HV DC submarine cables, each of 670 km from Sarawak’s shores depends on many equations. Marine quality of the underwater cables to withstand deterioration, storms, seabed movements, sabotage and acts of war. The government of Malaysia will have to be implicated in providing the protective shield since provision of electricity is a national matter. The 1999 and latest statewide blackouts are reminders of the complexities in the electricity supply grid.

Terrestrial and aquatic resources

Spiral effects to terrestrial resources, wildlife and endangered species are mostly unavoidable particularly along the riverine habitat. Mitigation measure involve monitoring, rescuing animals, establishment of conservation units and implementation of national parks and reserves nearby the sites.

Aquatic impacts in the inundation zone, upstream and downstream of the dam include direct displacement of habitat, alteration of water quality and impediments to fish migration. Such effects can be mitigated with reduction of logging in the catchment, erosion minimization measures, rehabilitation of aquatic lives and reservoir aquaculture.

Social impacts

Social impacts on the indigenous residents who depend on shifting cultivation, hunting and fishing are a very important aspect of the environmental impact of the dams. Traditional lifestyles and economies of the indigenous people would be changed. Such social-economical-cultural impacts will prove challenging to the Government’s ingenuity in its resettlement exercise. Uprooting cultures have never been a popular option. However, seen from a positive angle, Professor Hood Salleh maintains that “the importance of resettlement comes in as the primary rationale for a long term restructing of Sarawak society”. Eradication of poverty and the imbalance between urban rich and rural poor must be the survival instinct to adapt to the 21st century within the green odyssey. “We must bring them into the mainstream of development”, declared the Chief Minister. It may be different from the present lifestyle but it promises to be a better future. Only the staunchest of sceptics would imprison the natives to a past which cannot survive the future.

Economic benefits and sustainability

What dreams may come from the dams? There are numerous beneficial earnings from the infrastructure construction works, the dam construction, the logging operations, the paper-pulp milling, manufacturing of the cable for the electricity transmission, the production of cement, aluminium, steel and so forth. The spin-off industries will also create thousands of jobs and business opportunities for Malaysians. The local people will step forward to face socio-economic development in the new era. In SCORE, no one should be left scoreless.

However, the government is not unaware of the caution needed. Economists fear localized inflation for Sarawak as extensive and expansive projects push up prices of essential commodities, materials and services.

Further, the new activities and industries will bring with them the accompanying environmental woes, which need to be dealt with by yet another set of environmental protection programmes relating to the activities. Hence, the government would capitalize on these to bring about environment research in association with the universities and relevant government bodies.

With the participation of Malaysians in these projects, it will ensure the cultivation and development of local technology and expertise that would give the locals a better standing to compete in the global market. The strategic alliances with foreign partners would facilitate the transfer of technology and expertise to local companies. It will also strengthen Malaysia’s foreign exchange position, in addition to the carbon-credit trading with Sarawak could do with polluting nations and industrialists in our globalised world.

In most countries particularly the developing countries, economic growth is essential to finance the investment necessary to prevent pollution and improve the environment by better resource allocation. Here lies the paradox. It is therefore essential that economic and environmental well-beings are mutually reinforcing and it is for society to manage economic growth in such a way that it is sustainable. Although environmental degradation can threaten economic growth, it is also recognized that growth brings potential environmental benefits. It may bring improvements in technology which will lower the cost of preventing environmental damage.

Further, it has proven that higher income levels and better lifestyles go hand in hand with greater environmental concern and willingness if not expectation to see a rising share of the national wealth spent on environmental protection, which may improve on the absorptive capacity of our planet to heal itself. It is perhaps time that the many battles between environmentalists and business people should shift from the question of saving the environment to saving the business in order to save the environment.

The language of wealth creation through environmental preservation is more likely to be listened to by environmentalists and businessmen alike. Like man’s two legs, each must supplement each other in order for the body of development to push on. The world of business and the world of nature do not have to collide. One Earth: Our Common Future.

The environment is where we all live and development is for what we all need and the two are inseparable, maintains the United Nations Brundtland Commission. In terms of sustainable development scenario, the Commission favours a transition to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydro-power.

This is in line with Malaysia’s four-fuel diversification strategy. Development of renewable green energy resources can and must go on, provided it is accompanied by sustainable management programmes. The idea of interdependence between economic growth and environmental protection found expression in the Brundtland phrase “Sustainable Development”.

Every environmentally aware politician is in favour of it. It is recognition by those in power of the finite planet’s limits which all development must respect. It reminds and makes people to consider the stock of natural resources that will be available to future generations. In the survival conflict between a costly depleting fossil resource and a cheaper renewable green energy, fossil fuel invariably loses.

Politicians as much as environmentalists are the same vehicle for knowledge and information on environmental matters to be disseminated. With the worldwide attention focused on the hydro-project and the concerns generated locally, Sarawak with its acquired knowledge and experience will be responsible for Malaysia’ birth from its gestation stage of environmental awareness to ecological conscientiousness. As environmental degradation begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that environmental degradation ends.

GOH LENG CHUA is a retired lawyer and a keen observer of environmental affairs. He lives in Kuching.

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