Malaysia’s Murum Dam Sets Poor Precedents for Best Practice

Simone Adler
A view of the Murum River, where the Murum Dam is located
A view of the Murum River, where the Murum Dam is located
Photo Credit: Free Malaysia Today

Sarawak is a Malaysian state located in the northern part of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, home of one of the world’s oldest rainforests and the world’s highest rate of deforestation. Deep within the forest, home to 40 indigenous communities, sits the nearly completed 944 MW Murum Dam. The dam is expected to be portrayed as best practice by the Sarawak government and the dam builders involved. In May of next year, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) will hold its biennial conference in Sarawak and is expected to further praise the Murum Dam.

The Penan are one of the most vulnerable indigenous peoples in Sarawak. 1,500 Penan and Kenyah will be displaced by the Murum Dam.
The Penan are one of the most vulnerable indigenous peoples in Sarawak. 1,500 Penan and Kenyah will be displaced by the Murum Dam.
Photo Credit: Bruno Manser Fund

Yet, the Murum Dam will soon flood the homes of 1,500 people of the Penan and Kenyah indigenous communities, displacing them from their ancestral lands and forcing them to give up their forest-dependent cultures. What’s more, the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) on the Murum Dam was never made public, so the indigenous people were never informed of the impacts to their land. They have had no input during the planning and construction phases of the dam and no participation in the resettlement process. Far from being a model of best practice, the Murum Dam will set several precedents in the hydropower sector that make this a dam to watch more closely.

The first dam in Sarawak’s rapid hydropower development scheme 

Deforestation of the Sarawak rainforest due to access roads built for industries such as dams, logging, and palm oil plantations
Deforestation of the Sarawak rainforest due to access roads built for industries such as dams, logging, and palm oil plantations
Photo Credit: Sarawak Headhunter

Murum is the first in a series of 12 dams that the Sarawak government plans to build by 2020 for the purpose of industrial development, hoping that the electricity will attract energy-intensive industries. According to the government, this scheme – called SCORE, the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy – will transform Sarawak into a developed state. But there is local concern of who will actually benefit from this project. Many of the companies involved are owned or linked to the head of Sarawak’s government. Demand for the dam’s energy is also in question: the 12 dams in SCORE plus the Bakun Dam would produce 7,000 MW of electricity, but Sarawak’s local energy demand is only projected to grow to 1,500 MW by 2020, and there is already an excess of power. The government’s tight control over the media has limited public debate about whether or not SCORE is a good idea, and without the disclosure of ESIAs, little is known about the social and environmental impacts of the 12 dams. The lack of participation and transparency surrounding the Murum Dam sends a clear message about SCORE: the government is more concerned with hastily building dams than with protecting the rainforest and the well-being of the Sarawak people.

A test for China’s overseas dam builders

Internationally, there is reason to pay attention to the Murum Dam because it is the first overseas project of the China Three Gorges Corporation (CTG), which is notorious for building the Three Gorges Dam. CTG could become a major player in international dam construction, so its reputation as a good business partner overseas hinges on this project. Its involvement in Murum will set a precedent for how it will go about managing the social and environmental risks of dams, particularly in regards to the rights of indigenous people. But when it comes to being responsible and accountable for the dam’s impacts, CTG has placed blind trust in the Sarawak government to manage social and environmental concerns. Relying on a corrupt government that has a controlling stake in many companies involved with the dam’s construction indicates a lack of due diligence on the part of CTG. The Murum Dam is a warning to the international community that CTG does not plan to conduct its own environmental and social oversight for the projects it chooses.

The first case of HSAP greenwashing

When the IHA gathers in Sarawak next year for its bi-yearly conference, it is expected to applaud the Murum Dam as an example of sustainable hydropower. The developer of the Murum Dam, Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), is one of 11 hydropower corporations that have committed to using the IHA’s Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), a voluntary scoring tool launched in 2011 to assess the sustainability of dams. SEB was the first company to be trained on how to use the HSAP and conducted an unofficial assessment on the Murum Dam in April 2012. Whether SEB plans to conduct an official assessment on the dam is not known. Nevertheless, SEB will have the status of a “Sustainability Partner” and a stamp-of-approval from the IHA for sustainable dam building, regardless of the dam’s score and despite its disastrous impacts on people and the environment. The dam industry should be concerned about the precedent that the Murum Dam sets for promoting the HSAP as an effective tool to measure sustainability.

Off to a bad start and doesn’t seem to be getting better

The resettlement process is one of the most controversial issues of building dams, but there are international standards in place that guarantee indigenous people the right to provide their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent and require social and environmental impacts to be made known through an ESIA before a project starts. Yet in a rush to get the Murum Dam off the ground, the Sarawak government, SEB, and CTG have violated two such international standards: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Malaysia is a signatory, and the Equator Principles, which the government has publicly stated it would uphold. Both of these policies call for robust consultations with affected communities, the timely disclosure of information, and opportunities for people to raise concerns through grievance mechanisms. Yet construction on the Murum Dam is nearly complete, and communities are still unsure how they will sustain a living in their resettled homes. Without public disclosure of the ESIA, there is no way for indigenous communities to voice their concerns about their displacement or the impacts to the river and forest. Without any say in how their resettlement will take place, it is unlikely that the Penan and Kenyah communities will be resettled in any way sufficient to sustain their cultural traditions and livelihoods, or see any benefits from the dam. As the first of many more to come, the Murum Dam sets worrisome precedents in both Sarawak and internationally.