At Sustainability Congress, Dam Builder Bars Civil Society from Dialogue

Zachary Hurwitz
SAVE Rivers has protested against the Sarawak dams' impacts on indigenous peoples.
SAVE Rivers has protested against the Sarawak dams' impacts on indigenous peoples.
SAVE Rivers

Sarawak Energy, state developer of the controversial Murum and Baram dams in Sarawak, barred a representative of dam-affected people from participating in a workshop organized by the IFC, World Bank, ADB, and IADB at the start of the International Hydropower Association's bi-annual dam congress here in Kuching yesterday.

The move reflects the repressive relationship that Sarawak Energy has with dam-affected communities here in Borneo and calls into question the effectiveness of the IHA's Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol on improving the practices of dam builders in corrupt regimes.

Peter Kallang, chairman of the local SAVE Rivers network, which represents indigenous and affected communities impacted by the Batang Ai, Bakun, Murum, and Baram dams in Sarawak, had registered and paid to attend the full week of IHA Congress events, including yesterday's "Workshop on Regional Cooperation" organized by the multilateral banks and IHA with the support of Sarawak Energy. 

Upon arriving to join a bus transporting congress delegates to Sarawak Energy headquarters, the location of the workshop, Mr. Kallang and a colleague were told by a staff member of the IHA that they were not allowed to attend the workshop. The two civil society representatives were surprised and questioned the validity of the decision, and asked why this was the case. The response was that IHA had been told that they were not allowed.

It became clear that Sarawak Energy gave the command to IHA to bar the two from the workshop. SAVE Rivers has criticized the dams, including Bakun Dam, which displaced thousands of indigenous people and left a giant reservoir with terrible water quality. The group has also criticized the government, which has diminished the size of communities' resettlement lands against their wishes, and has withheld strategic environmental impact assessments on the Murum Dam and Baram Dam from public scrutiny.

The IHA is hoping that the HSAP can prove a useful tool to change Sarawak Energy's behavior for the better, and has been actively talking with the dam builder about its mistakes. But IHA's complicity in Sarawak Energy barring affected people from a multistakeholder workshop sends a message that HSAP will have little power against the wishes of a powerful, centralized, and repressive government.  

In an email, International Rivers brought the representative's exclusion to the attention of the multilateral organizers of the workshop, and we have been told that the affected peoples' representatives will be allowed to participate in the remaining events of the congress. There's no telling, however, how defensive Sarawak Energy and the Sarawak government will become when faced with criticism. The attitude they take this week will provide a clear sense of whether HSAP has the ability to improve, or will simply greenwash, destructive dams.

Monday, May 20, 2013