Local civil society organisation Save Rivers asserts that large-scale hydropower cannot be considered a source of renewable energy for Sarawak because of its destructive impact on the environment and on indigenous communities.
This is in response to the statements by Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB) vice-president Ting Ching Zung during a panel discussion on 24 November at an Asean conference.
“We are worried to hear that SEB is promoting mega dams again,” says James Nyurang of Tanjung Tepalit, Baram, one of the communities that would have been inundated by the Baram dam. “We were so happy that SEB finally focused on community needs with their solar Sares project that really improved the quality of life in our villages, this is the development we want. Dams, however, are not development but destruction.”
The global impacts of mega-dams are well documented. A 2016 study found hydroelectric dams emit a billion tons of greenhouse gasses a year – about 1.3% of human-caused global emissions. Behind every great dam is a great reservoir and at the bottom of a tropical dam reservoir, methane – a potent greenhouse gas – is produced. This contributes as much to global heating as the aviation industry.
A study has also shown that building mega-dams does not make economic sense in the tropics. As for the proposed Baram hydropower dam, which was shelved by the late Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem in 2015, a study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley found no evidence of economic benefit of the dam.
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Instead, it found that Sarawak’s scheduled dams then 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 ample capacity for energy generation from existing dams.
The late Adenan Satem also stated (interview with Channel News Asia, May 2016) that 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.”
“If Sarawak Energy wanted to test our reactions with their statement, we can tell them: the people of Baram are ready to fight anytime if SEB wants to revive its outdated dam plans. Adenan would be sad to see his legacy treated like this,” stressed Peter Kallang from Save Rivers.
Besides the multitude of research and evidence that document the destructiveness of a large scale hydropower project, its effect is felt the most on the ground.
Michael Jok, secretary general of Sarawak indigenous rights group Scrips, asked, “Why plan to build new mega-dams when what they did previously was not ‘justly implemented’ to those who were affected and people are still complaining all over the place? [A] few people are made rich at the expense of IP [the indigenous people] in Sarawak. Is this what SEB calls renewable energy to lessen carbon?”
One of the members of the displaced communities in the Bakun dam area, Alexander Lehan from Uma Nyaving, laments that until today they are living with the irreversible impact of the project on their culture and livelihood. For generations, the rich rainforest surrounding the communities were their natural source for food and their indigenous practices. Today, since all the resettlement long houses are built in close proximity to one another, the shrunken rainforest can no longer sustain the needs of the communities. – Save Rivers