Proposed Malaysia Dams Raise Transparency, Livelihood Fears

Thin Lei Win (Reuters)
Monday, May 20, 2013

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Activists in Sarawak, one of Malaysia's poorest states, have denounced local government plans to build 12 hydro-power dams, which they say is an environmental disaster in the making that will enrich an elite few and displace tens of thousands of people.

Campaigners also accused International Hydropower Association (IHA), an industry lobby group, of legitimising those plans by opening its biennial conference on Tuesday in Sarawak. 

Critics, including opposition politicians, say the dams due to be built by 2020 will produce more energy than needed. However, state-owned Sarawak Energy (SEB), which is awarding many of the project's contracts, says it plans to sell energy to other parts of Malaysia, Brunei, as well as the Indonesian parts of Borneo.

Costing $105 billion, the dams are Southeast Asia's most capital-intensive project. Activists say they are unnecessary and threaten the livelihoods of indigenous people. Campaigners have also criticised what they say is a lack of transparency around the way the project has been handled.

"What these dams and these industries bring is not good for our people," said Peter Kallang, chairman of SAVE Sarawak Rivers Network (SAVE Rivers), a coalition of indigenous groups, and a Sarawak native who stands to lose his home to the dams.

"The dams are going to destroy so many things. Sarawak is one of the most bio-diverse regions on planet earth and all that will be gone when the dams come," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak.

Kallang said the government was building the dams to bring in "dirty" industries such as aluminum smelting plants, adding that so far, it has not published any assessment of the environmental impact of the projects.

Environmentalists are concerned the dams could mean the end to Sarawak's forests, which they estimate have shrunk to 5 percent of land cover. The state says forest cover is 70 percent, but activists say it uses a broad definition that includes rapidly expanding palm-oil plantations.


Kallang pointed to the fate of those displaced by Bakun dam, Malaysia's biggest, as a harbinger of things to come. Completed in 2011, Transparency International called it "a monument to corruption".

"Out of the more than 10,000 people who were moved to make way for Bakun, only 25 percent are living in resettlement areas. Most of them have moved out because there are no means of making a living," he said.

Zach Hurwitz, policy coordinator for the non-profit organisation International Rivers, said: "Dams can be a part of a portfolio of energy options for governments but the way these particular projects are handled have been highly non-transparent and in such disregard for the interest and participation of affected people."

Sarawak has also been under the spotlight over allegations of timber corruption.

The Malaysian anti-corruption agency said it has been investigating Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud since 2011 in response to environmental activists' complaints about corruption in the forestry industry.

No charges have been brought against Taib.

In March, campaigning group Global Witness, posted a video showing Taib's cousins and associates apparently offering thousands of hectares of forest land to the group's undercover investigators and formulating plans to book the land sales in Singapore to avoid Malaysian taxes.

Taib publicly denied the allegations raised as a result of the video. "I saw the so-called proof. It has nothing to do with me," he told local media at the time. "Everything has to be done with government procedure."


Holding the International Hydropower Association's (IHA) meeting in Sarawak has been controversial.

Environmental and rights groups point to what they say is a conflict of interest. State-owned Sarawak Energy's (SEB) CEO sits on the board of IHA and the companies developing the 12 dams are sponsoring the meeting.

In emailed comments, IHA President Richard Taylor said IHA congresses are "international in nature, and will not have a specific emphasis on the hydro-power projects in Malaysia" and will have "alternative viewpoints".

Taylor did not address the specific questions put forward by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, but said IHA has started working on sustainability assessments and other research programmes in relation to hydro-power development in Sarawak.

"We see that as a further signal of increasing good faith between parties," Taylor added.

Kallang is not so sure. He said he was prevented from boarding a bus to attend a pre-Congress workshop on Monday despite having valid registration documents. He was told it was because he wrote to Taylor critiquing IHA's involvement in the dams.