Murum Dam

The 944 MW Murum Dam is the first project to be completed in a series dams that the Sarawak government aims to build by 2020. This dam is also the first major overseas project for China Three Gorges Corporation. However, it has been beset by a significant technical problems related to faulty turbine installation, and as a result it is unknown when the project will become operational. Site construction has been completed but impoundment of the reservoir has been interrupted in order for corrective action to be taken. The Murum Dam has dispossessed Indigenous People of their customary lands and forced them to resettle in areas with deplorable living conditions, where there is no food security, little hope of economic opportunities and poor access to social services.  The dismal realities of people now living at the resettlement site have been the subject of investigations by the Malaysian Bar Council and the national human rights commission, SUHAKAM over the course of 2014.

Construction on the Murum Dam nears completion (May 2012)

The project developer is Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), Sarawak’s state-owned electricity generating company. Dam construction was supervised by China Three Gorges Corporation and undertaken by Chinese dam builder Sinohydro. Both Chinese companies have expressed intentions to invest in subsequent hydropower projects in Sarawak, but neither company has expressed an interest in the environmental or social consequences of the project.

Construction of the dam began in 2008, but at the time, neither the legally required environmental impact assessment nor resettlement action plans were made public. The project developers did not begin an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) until after construction was already underway, and the resettlement plans were leaked in 2012.

The Sarawak government began resettling around 1,500 Indigenous People - most of whom are Penan - starting in July 2013. Many of the Penan families were nomadic until the 1980s and only recently established permanent villages. The people still depend heavily on the forests for their livelihoods. However, the resettlement sites are surrounded by vast expanses of palm oil and land committed for logging concessions to politically connected timber companies. One villager told International Rivers that “the land allocated to us is equivalent to putting us in a barrel where we can hardly move.” The Sarawak government has therefore forced the communities to agree to the terms of the resettlement without first disclosing information on how the dam will impact local people and ecosystems, and without providing independent legal and technical support to the communities. .

In September 2012, when the affected Indigenous communities obtained a leaked copy of the Murum Dam’s resettlement plan, they were outraged at the compensation terms that the company planned to provide. Over 200 indigenous people blockaded access to the dam, bringing construction to a halt for over one month. Following the completion of project impoundment, they have continued to launch periodic blockades to demand improvements in their housing conditions and access to promised land allocations.

As of late 2015, the communities have still not heard where the land promised in the resettlement plans to each household are located. Some families have established 'floating' homes by the reservoir where their old land has been submerged in order to continue to eke out a living based on fishing and hunting. School facilities for the children living in the resettlement site remain inadequate with classes housed in the former dormitories of SEB construction workers. There is no system of transport to the makeshift schools for families living at a distance, and as a result, the attendance rates are low. Housing conditions remain poor, with the prefabricated structures provided by SEB already becoming dilapidated. Without land and without viable options for employment, the displaced communities generally report feeling idle and hopeless. Although SEB staff have proceeded to organize workshops, festivals and community events, the programming fails to allow for the communities to engage in a process of self-determination for their future and falls far short of any attempt to be accountable to the livelihood rights guaranteed to the indigenous populations under national and international law.