Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Malaysia: Sarawak Dams: Boon or Bane to Development?
Tribal leaders worries over plans to build a dozen dams in the pristine, interconnected river ecology of Sarawak, home to many ethnic tribes in Malaysia and located north-west of Borneo Island.
Considered the third largest island in the world, Borneo occupies an area the size of Singapore and lies at the centre of Maritime South- east Asia. It is divided among three countries, namely, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. At its north lie Sarawak and the disputed Malaysian state, Sabah.
The proposed Sarawak complex of hydroelectric dams is expected to lead to a forced resettlement of the affected tribal communities to an unfriendly place as well as to inundation of the state’s vast tracts of rainforest, said to be the earth’s oldest tropical rainforest.
The proposed massive dams are intended to generate cheap electricity and feed China's rapidly expanding economy on top of Malaysia’s energy- consuming manufacturing industries that are intended to be relocated to the state. The complex is expected to have a combined power-generating capacity of 7,000 megawatts (MW) by 2020, or at least 600 percent more than the current capacity of the island.
Sarawak's rivers makes economic sense and moving industries to the island is a better option: Sarawak’s interconnected river system is unique and unlike any in the world. The system is the state's greatest wealth and, if tapped intelligently, will feed industries that need cheap power like aluminum smelters.
On Jan. 11, the government announced plans by China and Malaysia to pursue joint venture energy projects amounting to 11 billion U.S. dollars in Sarawak. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak unveiled the plans involving the government-owned development and investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and China’s leading power grid operator, the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC).
In a short period of time 1MDB and SGCC, which is China's leading power and distribution company, will be collaborating to identify and plan a number of multi-billion-dollar projects. But government officials, who also declined to be named, said dams and power plant constructions were among the huge joint projects of the two firms.
Sarawak is slated for huge growth and will be transformed within 20 years, with the focus on energy sector.
1MDB and SGCC will establish hydropower plants similar to the controversial Bakun Dam – located on Balui River in Sarawak – and a massive aluminum smelter in the same state.
The Bakun facility is the forerunner of this huge and ambitious plan to tap Sarawak’s power for power-intensive industries.
Anti-dam groups said the two-billion-dollar Bakun Dam, which is scheduled to come online later this year, would engulf a huge tract of the Borneo jungle in water. Approved by the government in 1986, the project is nearing completion after more than two decades of controversy, opposition and financial constraints triggered by the 1997 Asian crisis.
During intermittent construction of the hydroelectric dam, thousands of indigenous people were uprooted and moved out of the construction and immediate catchment area. Large tracts of rainforests, where natives of the several tribes lived, were cleared to make way for the dam.
When completed, Bakun’s reservoir will cover 695 square kilometres and power eight turbines. But for the displaced indigenous people of Sarawak, Bakun is nothing but endless misery. Used to a life of farming, fishing and limited hunting, the tribal people have great difficulty adapting to a cash economy.
The Bakun dam has an estimated generation capacity of 2,400 MW, considered ambitious for Sarawak’s small, agriculture-based economy, which has no use for such huge generated power.
The original Bakun plan was to ship the generated power through undersea cables across the South China Sea to Peninsular Malaysia. But those opposed to the project said it did not make sense because Peninsular Malaysia was already experiencing a power glut, with numerous independent power producers queuing up to sell power.
Peninsular or West Malaysia, located on the Malay Peninsula, accounts for the majority of the South-east Asian country’s estimated 28 million population and economy. Environment activists also argued that the option to lay cables would be expensive, was fraught with technical uncertainties, and could raise sovereignty issues if they passed through Indonesian waters.
This ambitious and, in the words of some experts, "foolhardy plan" to use undersea cables across 1,000 kilometres of open sea appears to have been abandoned for an equally ambitious plan to bring power- hungry industries to Sarawak.
But even before the turbines of the Bakun hydro-electric facility begin to turn later this year, environmentalists and activists continue to sound the alarm bells on plans to build 12 more mega-dams in Sarawak, which the government sees as a major injection into the sluggish economy and an investment that will deliver political capital as well.
Foreign investment in Malaysia plummeted in 2009 as a result of the global financial crisis. The 1MDB, which was created in 2008, is aimed at forming global partnerships to drive Malaysia’s economic growth.