Bakun Dam

In 2011, after five decades of delays, the Sarawak government began operating the 2,400 MW Bakun Dam, a project that Transparency International labeled a “monument to corruption.” The project was developed by the Malaysian government and Chinese state-owned dam builder Sinohydro with support from the China Export Import Bank. At 205 meters high, the Bakun Dam is Asia’s largest dam outside China.

The dam's reservoir submerged 700 square kilometers of forests and farmland. In the dam's first few years of operation, the reservoir has experienced high nitrogen loading, because the dam developers did not clear the vegetation located behind the dam. The surrounding land upstream is also used for industrial agriculture such as palm oil plantations, whose chemical runoff has deposited nitrogen-heavy sediment into the reservoir.  As a result, the Bakun reservoir has become highly acidic, which has heavily corroded the four turbines already installed in the powerhouse and eroded the surrounding soil and vegetation on the slopes of the reservoir.  The potent methane emitted by the reservoir can be smelled kilometers away.

Bakun resettlement site in Asap, Sarawak

A Resettlement Disaster

Over one decade after resettlement, the Indigenous People displaced by the project are still struggling to eke out a living. About 10,000 people were resettled to the town of Asap in 1998. When the communities were resettled, the government told the people they must pay for their own housing, which forced many families into debt. Whereas communities were once able to catch fish in the river, hunt, and gather forest products, they now have no access to forests. Each family was promised 10 acres of farmland but was only provided 3 acres. This has not been enough to sustain a living, especially since much of the land is rocky, sloped, and sandy. Many plots of land are several hours’ journey from the town. As the children of resettled families grow up, there has not been enough land available for them to start their own families. Most of the land surrounding Asap has already been licensed to palm oil and forestry companies. People are accessing the company land to grow crops, which has created tensions.

Concerns grew so much that the Prime Minister of Malaysia visited the resettlement area in January 2011, promising to forgive some of the communities’ housing debts and provide further assistance. Several lawsuits have also been filed in local courts in an attempt to uphold indigenous people’s constitutional rights.

Corruption and Questionable Economics

The dam has also proved to be problematic from an economic perspective. Originally the Sarawak government planned to send 90% of the Bakun Dam’s 2,400 MW of electricity to peninsular Malaysia via undersea cables, but this plan was cancelled due to cost and feasibility concerns. The electricity generated by the dam is not needed within Sarawak, which currently has only 972 MW of demand and is only projected to have 1,500 MW of demand by 2020. The Sarawak government is still looking for ways to sell its excess electricity and is not operating the dam at full capacity.

Corruption has deterred potential buyers of the electricity. In March 2012, the mining giant Rio Tinto cancelled its plans to build a $2 billion aluminum smelter that would have used electricity from the Bakun Dam not long after the Malaysian national government began a corruption investigation into the project.

Indigenous Peoples' Community Organizing Efforts

A grassroots movement of Sarawak indigenous leaders,  the SAVE Rivers Network, along with the national Indigenous Peoples network, Jaringan Orang Asli SeMalaysia (JOAS) are working together to ensure that the mistakes of the Bakun Dam are not repeated. SAVE Rivers and JOAS have conducted interviews and documented the resettlement situation near the Bakun Dam, in order to educate Sarawak indigenous communities of the dangers and difficulties of involuntary resettlement. With the legacy of the Bakun Dam resettlement left unresolved, there are well-founded  and widespread concerns about the Sarawak government's plans to build another 10-12 dams on Indigenous Peoples lands.