Sinohydro Denies Dam Unsafe

Toh Han Shih
Monday, June 20, 2011

This article was originally published in The South China Morning Post

Some workers on Malaysia's biggest dam, due to open next year, claim concrete is being diluted with water - and passing quality tests

Sinohydro, China's biggest dam builder, has rejected accusations it used unsafe construction methods to build Malaysia's Bakun dam, but acknowledges its construction processes did not fully adhere to correct procedures.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have alleged that under the watch of Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, improper construction practices in the dam were widespread and pose concerns for its future safety.

Malaysia-China Hydro, a joint venture between Sinohydro and Malaysian firm Sime Engineering, is the biggest contractor engaged in building the dam, which will be Malaysia's largest when it is completed next year. Writing in the online Sarawak Report, environmental journalist Clare Rewcastle alleged the practice of adding excessive water to cement, regarded as unsafe by the construction industry, was endemic in the building of the dam.

The online report includes photos and a video of water being injected via a hose into cement mixers before being used in the dam. It also included a photo of a document indicating that a batch of concrete was rejected by quality controllers because too much water had been added into the cement.

"It is well-known that the Chinese contractors were under extreme pressure from the Malaysian government during the period up to 2009 to get the dam finished as quickly and cheaply as possible, after a series of delays and cost overruns," the Sarawak Report said.

Building of the dam started in 1996 but was plagued by many delays, including changes of ownership, contractors and management.

"It's all supposition," a Sinohydro spokeswoman was quoted saying after seeing the video and photos. "The pictures show workers washing the silo of the machine. We can admit the cleaning process is not correct and doesn't follow instructions," she said.

The rejection of a batch of concrete because water was introduced could be proof that quality control was functioning, she said. The Sarawak Report cited an unnamed quality controller at the project who said many batches of cement with excessive water passed quality control tests because the measures were inadequate.

The quality controller said he often reported these problems to his superiors at Sinohydro, but got little response or support from them.

"I used to raise this issue and nobody took any notice of it. They would just say `okay, let it go, and warn them not to do it next time'. If I found them adding water to the concrete I would reject it as substandard, but I could not be everywhere all the time and I know it was happening when I was not there," he said.

"For years Sinohydro and the contractors have refused to take adequate action in response to official complaints of under-resourced quality controllers at Bakun," the article in the Sarawak Report noted.

Raymond Abin, national co-ordinator of the Sarawak Conservation Alliance for the Natural Environment, said: "The unsafe practices outlined by the Sarawak Report are true. The group is fighting dam construction in Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo.

"The source of its information is reliable as the information came from workers previously involved in engineering work on the construction of the Bakun dam. Only those workers who worked on-site knew the problem. The public has no access to the project site because it is strictly guarded," Abin said.

Responding to safety concerns, the Sinohydro spokeswoman said extensive testing had been conducted, and asserted the condition of the dam was in line with expectations. "The dam has been filling since October 2010. During all this process no defects have been mentioned. The dam is safe."

Countering claims by some NGOs that the dam was a wasteful white elephant, the Sinohydro spokeswoman said it was part of the long-term plan of the Sarawak state government to create more than 20,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy.

The Sarawak government's renewable energy plan would provide substantial employment opportunities and triple Sarawak's gross domestic product by 2020, she said.

"The Bakun Hydroelectric Project is the largest hydropower project in Malaysia with an installed capacity of 2,400 MW. It will significantly contribute to meeting the increasing demand of electricity in the country," said the website of Sarawak Hidro, a wholly owned subsidiary of Malaysia's Ministry of Finance which is the developer of the dam.

But Abin accused the Malaysian government and the dam builders of failing to take the safety of the dam into account. "They are more interested in completing the dam as the project has been delayed for so long. This is very serious because a slight tremor will cause the dam structure to break which can endanger human lives downstream and the entire Rejang River basin."

Grace Mang, China programme co-ordinator of International Rivers, an international NGO focusing on water, expressed concern over the environmental impact of the dam as well as its safety. "The size of the Bakun project has meant there has been a significant impact on the surrounding communities and the environment. But new information about the quality of Sinohydro's construction is certainly alarming," she said.

Sarawak Hidro did not respond to questions from the South China Morning Post.