Guest Blog – Sarawak Mega-Dams, You Bet Your Life

Jettie Word, Executive Director, The Borneo Project

"You cannot say this is a Sarawak problem – this is our national problem. If you look at the impact of a dam on the environment, this is an international problem, because it will drown one of the most biodiverse parts of the world.”
- Peter Kallang of SAVE-Rivers, on Sarawak’s proposed dams.

Jettie Word, Executive Director of The Borneo Project
Jettie Word, Executive Director of The Borneo Project
Photo by The Borneo Project

Environmental debates are often framed as a choice between economic progress and preservation. Proponents for rapid growth argue that development requires sacrifices, that economic prosperity trumps environmental concerns. This growth-at-all-costs paradigm is clearly, painfully, apparent in SCORE, the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, a proposal to transform the rainforests of Borneo into a giant industrial park. Much of SCORE’s vision depends on the construction of 12 new mega-dams to provide “cheap” hydropower for use in heavy industry, like smelting of aluminum ore. SCORE also includes massive expansion of palm oil plantations, and coal mining.

Palm oil has not been a friend of Borneo’s forest, and it stretches the meaning of the word to the breaking point to call coal mining in the rainforest “renewable.” But the real devastation from SCORE would come from mega-dams that, if constructed, would flood over 2,000 square kilometers of rainforest, forest that is vital habitat for rare and endangered species, and home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples.

If SCORE is implemented there will be extreme sacrifices to people, to wildlife, and to the global climate. If flooded, these unique forests, which now serve as vital carbon sinks, would decompose underwater releasing methane, a global warming gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Tropical mega-dams are not friendly to the climate.

SCORE’s economic gains would need to be enormous to justify the massive damage to the global environment; but what economic gains could possibly justify the human costs of displacing tens of thousands of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, and of relocating them into resettlement centers best described as Stalinesque? If the planned resettlement centers for the new dams are similar to the resettlement reality of Bakun Dam, Sarawak’s recently completed mega-dam project, displaced peoples will be forced from a life of relative affluence into a life of poverty. Even if SCORE should “succeed” economically, many will suffer.

But what if it doesn’t succeed? What if instead of increasing prosperity, the dams turn out to be a bad investment, a kind of corruption-driven debacle similar in kind to Enron? The analogy is not far fetched. SCORE is funded, in part, by the retirement plans of Malaysian citizens. Are mega-dams a secure investment? Do they have the kind financial track record you want to bet your life savings on? The answer is a resounding NO according to a recent study by Oxford University: mega-dams rarely break even and return the money invested in their construction. Often they lose money; instead of spurring economic growth, they can saddle their host countries with heavy debt. If SCORE dams, like other corruption-driven mega-dams, go belly up, what happens to the retirement funds of Malaysian citizens?

Resistance to the Baram Dam and associated facilities, in Sarawak
Resistance to the Baram Dam and associated facilities, in Sarawak
Photo by SAVE-Rivers

The worst-case scenario is that these dams will bring great sacrifices and no gain, except, of course, to contractors building the dams.

Corruption has a way of distorting economic planning so the wealthy become obscenely rich and everybody else suffers. Is there an alternative form of development for Sarawak, one that is reasonable, that protects species diversity, that keeps the forest intact, and that enhances the rights of indigenous peoples instead of undermining them? Is there such a thing as ecological development?

A team at UC Berkeley says that there is. The choice is not between preserving the forest or developing the economy; that cliché is threadbare. The most rational choice, according to RAEL—the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley—is to build a mix of sustainable energy generation, using micro-hydro, solar, and biogas generators. It is possible to keep the forest, and to develop the economy. It’s not either/or; it’s a Yes-We-Must do both. Sustainable, democratic, and ecological alternatives to mega-dams would create greater wealth over time, all the while keeping this biological treasure intact.

Preserving the forest to preserve and grow Malaysia’s economy is, of course, not news to the people who have tended the forest for millennia. Thousands of indigenous people in Borneo have risen up to shout “No” to the mega-dams and “Yes” to alternate development in Sarawak. Tending their forest by fusing the best of their heritage with the best of appropriate technology would increase rural prosperity and protect the forest. They are fighting hard for the chance to do exactly that. A dedicated, articulate, and creative coalition of indigenous leaders has joined together to form SAVE-Rivers, an advocacy group opposing the construction of the mega-dams.

Since 2011, SAVE-Rivers has been disseminating information exposing the adverse effects of mega-dams, supporting protests against Sarawak’s dams, and strengthening networks and communication between affected communities. In November 2013 two representatives of SAVE-Rivers toured Australia, informing the public about the involvement of the Australian consultancy company Hydro Tasmania in Sarawak’s dams. At the end of the twelve-day tour, Hydro Tasmania announced plans to end its involvement in the dams, saying that “Hydro Tasmania will leave Sarawak by the end of 2013.″ SAVE-Rivers has also held or supported four anti-dam protests in Malaysia, held a statewide conference in Sarawak, started petitions, and filed official complaints against the dams.

These brave leaders deserve support. Coordinating with other NGO’s, including International Rivers, and guided by SAVE-Rivers, the Borneo Project is producing a series of short films, less than 10 minutes each, that will shine a light on SCORE, expose its many problems, and, perhaps most importantly, bring to light the RAEL alternative that increases prosperity of development based on environmental justice. We’ve completed the first film, Damming Our Future, a general introduction to the series. Please help us bring their message to the world by supporting the Borneo Mega-Dam Film Project.

At the end of June 2014, communities in Sarawak, Malaysia joined together in solidarity with the Baram Dam blockade for the end of harvest festivities.
At the end of June 2014, communities in Sarawak, Malaysia joined together in solidarity with the Baram Dam blockade for the end of harvest festivities.
Photo by SAVE-Rivers
Wednesday, July 9, 2014