Damned Dangerous – Why Sarawak Should Not Build More Mega-dams

What benefit the destruction?
What benefit the destruction?

Both the massive Bakun Dam and the recently built Murum Dam still sit half-idle.

So, people might sensibly ask, why on earth is the Taib/Adenan regime so keen to keep building more and more of these white elephants in Sarawak with the announcement of Baleh just last week?

They, of course, will argue that ‘projections’ show that there will be a vast and increased demand for this hydro-power imminently. They will also promise an influx of the world’s heavy manufacturers, eager to take advantage of cheap power and bringing tens of thousands of job opportunities along with them (mainly for imported foreign workers).

Mega-dams are hyped as the engine of a ‘great leap forward’ for the state. Before it was timber, then it was oil palm, now the people are told their luck will finally come in with dam powered industrialisation.

Why not listen to the people?
Why not listen to the people?

But, the real incentive is self-enrichment as all the evidence shows.

The first profits are to be had from the logging of once protected regions and river basins, with all the licences as usual going to family and cronies of the political decision-makers.

Next, the huge sums  borrowed by the state to finance these monster projects are ripe for creaming off, again by those same decision-makers and their cronies.

Added to this is the fact that Sarawak’s main construction conglomerate, CMSB, is still principally owned by Taib’s own family (despite efforts by the British CEO to disguise that fact in recent years) and it holds the state monopoly on the provision of cement.

Finally, all the transportation and cabling contracts go to Taib related companies as do the construction contracts developed to utilise the power. There are simply billions of ringgit of easy profit to be made by these politically connected outfits from a nice fat mega-project like a dam.

Meanwhile, as past experience in Sarawak shows, the people themselves experience the loss of their lands and livings, dislocation to grim re-settlement areas and paltry compensation with very little economic benefit to themselves. To add insult to injury many of these displaced people (in whose name the projects were invariably promoted) still live without access to the benefits of hydro-electricy or running water.

Simply too dangerous to be trusted 

Mistakes risk catastrophe with mega-dams
Mistakes risk catastrophe with mega-dams

Mega-dams still pose the riskiest engineering challenges of the present day and the technology remains experimental.

And yet Sarawak has engaged Chinese companies, which are only starting to develop such projects on their own and the result has been a string of safety and construction scandals.

At both Bakun and Murum Sarawak Report has uncovered evidence of unsafe practices, cover-ups, short-cuts and repeated violation of protocols with regard to the rights of affected communities.

To remind just how dangerous, slip-shod and untrustworthy the State has been in its past handling of previous dam projects, we below are linking to earlier stories reported on this site, which have yet to be resolved.

In the light of those we ask on what grounds can anyone trust the present State Government to undertake yet another such dangerous project as the Baleh Dam announced last week?

Issue 1 – Safety

Way back in 2010 Sarawak Report obtained exclusive video and documents showing that the concrete mix for the face of the monster Bakun Dam was being routinely watered down by workers without adequate quality control managers on site. Experts warned as a result of a catastrophic potential for cracking and erosion of the main wall of this the second highest dam in the world:

Caught on video - concrete at Bakun was routinely watered down on site
Caught on video – concrete at Bakun was routinely watered down on site

This issue was first denied and then ignored. So no surprise when four years later Sarawak Report learnt of similar staggering negligence with respect to the construction of the key steel monster turbines constructed in China for the Murum Dam.

Not until the turbines were delivered to the construction site and two had been installed did Sarawak Electricity’s CEO, Torstein Sjotveit, decide to check the quality of these crucial pieces of machinery and they turned out to be severely and dangerously flawed.  SEB’s response was to launch a cover-up – Sarawak only learnt about the severe and dangerous problem after the details of the devastating report were leaked by insiders to the blog:

Dangerous precedents - 75 workers died when this flawed turbine failed in Russia in 2009
Dangerous precedents – 75 workers died when this flawed turbine failed in Russia in 2009

Sjotveit then first denied the problem and then blamed Sarawak Report for ‘misinforming’ people that it could not be fixed on site. Experts have told Sarawak Report that SEB have taken an immense risk trying to fix the flaws on site and that failure to perform a perfect job could cause the vast engines to tear through the wall of the dam, with prospects of catastrophic damage.

The Murum cover-up was set in the context of the sudden deaths of two key senior Sarawak engineers at SEB:

However, these are by no means the only cases of dire warnings and cover-ups unearthed by Sarawak Report regarding its history of building dams.  Later in 2014 we discovered a copy of the long demanded Environmental Impact Assessment on the Murum Dam, which Taib had begun as a secret project back in 2008, without any attempt to consult on the wider safety of the project.

That EIA issued several dire warnings at the decision to build Murum Dam up river from Bakun without taking extensive steps to further strengthen the wall of the original Bakun Dam.

Murum sits 70 km up a river gorge above Bakun, meaning that any failure of Murum (caused by a faulty turbine perhaps?) would funnel a huge body of water into Bakun Lake. This was a danger not foreseen and not prepared for in the earlier construction of Bakun’s (flawed) concrete wall – risking what the EIA described as a ‘Catastrophic Cascading Failure’ of both dams.

Projected flooding in the event of a failure of Bakun
Projected flooding in the event of a failure of Bakun

Shockingly, the EIA calculated an ‘Extreme Risk’ factor in the event of the construction of such a dam, without the said precautions, focussing on the fact that half a million people (half Sarawak’s population of native people) live within the flood range of a Bakun rupture. Even more shockingly, the state government chose to suppress the report and do nothing, while proceeding with the construction of Murum Dam:

Risk of catastrophic consequences
Risk of catastrophic consequences

“The impacts of dam break [at Murum] are mentioned in Section 7.3: Such event is potentially disastrous because it is likely to result in the cascading failure of Bakun Dam downstream. The downstream impacts would be phenomenal as mentioned” [Section 7.4 Murum EIA]

Given the potential for disastrous consequences to Bakun of any failure of Murum Dam, the EIA had recommended a thorough re-evaluation of the strength of Bakun’s structures and the implementation of a civil Emergency Action Plan (see SR’s uploaded copy of the report).  However, the State Government preferred to keep the matter quiet.

It is for these reasons that Sarawak Report contends that the Sarawak State Government and its agencies have demonstrated themselves not fit and trustworthy to be in charge of the construction of further dams within the state, given the self-interested motives of its politicians and their cavalier attitude to warnings and flaws within these huge and dangerous projects

Issue 2 – Human Rights

Equally shocking is the Sarawak State Government’s record with regard to the rights and compensations for native people displaced by these massive mega-structures which have already displaced thousands of people in the state.

Consultation, compensation and respect for community wishes have been ignored as projects have been driven forward in conditions of secrecy and deceit.  The scandal of Bakun is well-known, but Sarawak Report uncovered a swathe of separate scandals during the period of construction of Murum, showing that no lessons had been learnt.

It was only after the ‘Resettlement Action Plan’ was leaked to Sarawak Report, just a few weeks before the flooding of the dam that the Penan communities in the area learnt for the first time of the derisory compensation and relocation package planned by the State Government and SEB.

The Penan camped for 70 days to protest the plans
The Penan camped for 77 days to protest the plans

The Penan communities then camped out for a 77 day blockade to challenge the dam, before being forced out by rising waters.  So much for consultation.

The resettlement of the Penan, as subsequently covered by Sarawak Report, is yet another exercise in failure, cover-up and a callous disregard of human rights by the state authorities who continued to persist in arguing that the purpose of the dam was to ‘improve’ and ‘modernise’ the lives of these displaced communities:

Dumped! - starvation rations are supplied once a month to the isolated Murum resettlement camps
Dumped! – starvation rations are supplied once a month to the isolated Murum resettlement camps

Issue 3 – Debt and Economic Consequences

For all these reasons – corruption, shoddy construction, human rights abuses – Sarawak Report believes that the State Government is not to be trusted in the construction of mega-dams.

The supposed wealth creating benefits that are so frequently advertised to mitigate such disadvantages have also been widely exposed as an economic myth and wishful thinking.

To the contrary the economic consequences of constructing mega-dams are generally disastrous for developing countries, as a body of evidence from numerous respected institutions have pointed out.

This weekend Sarawak’s own Save Rivers campaign, which led the successful rejection by the people of Baram against the previous planned mega-dam, has itself come out against the plan for Balah for these same compelling reasons.

Mega dams are obsolete and destructive. That is why thousands of dams are being dismantled in developed countries which recognise those ugly facts.

Mega dams are removed because their negative effects far outweigh the fictional benefits. That is why even in the United State of America, which is the world’s top economy, dams are continuously being removed. So, between the years 1912 to 2015, there have been 1,300 (one thousand three hundred) dams which have been removed in the USA alone….While several developed countries are removing their dams, Sarawak seems to be completely oblivious to only sane options and chose alternative energy source and stubbornly pursuing a venture which have multitudes of negative impacts

Says Director Peter Kallang in his statement summing up the situation. Instead, Chief Minister Adenan and his boss Taib Mahmud have raised billions to build these monsters and they want that money spent!

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