Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bakun DamN

The Bakun Hydroelectric Project (Bakun HEP)

The Bakun HEP involves the construction of a massive 2400MW dam on the Balui river, 37 kilometres upstream from Belaga in Sarawak, the building of a resetllement scheme for some 10,000 displaced indigenous people, the building of transmission lines across Sarawak to take the electricity, the laying of 2 x 750 km submarine cables to take electricity to Peninsular Malaysia, and transmission lines on the Peninsular Malaysia side.

It is a massive project with huge impacts on many aspects of Malaysians’ lives.

For example:

1. Mega projects and cronyism

Bakun is a prime example of a mega project being used to generate funds for ‘special’ people (cronies) close to the ruling party, both in the Federal government and in Sarawak.

The first round of Bakun saw Ting Pek Khiing, a favourite of Dr Mahathir’s, leading the Bakun rip-off via Ekran. Millions of ringgit were paid to Ekran when the project was abandoned in 1997, in addition to the millions made by Ting in sub-contracting many of the contracts (including logging) to other companies which he owned.

Then there was the proposed involvement of Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, the giving of the overall responsibility to Sime Engineering, the huge involvement of Sarawak Chief Minister Taib’s family’s involvement via Cahaya Mata Sarawak, and the many smaller companies and people involved in contracts and pay-offs.

All this is paid for by the Malaysian rakyat, through the high electricity cost which will be paid, the subsidy to TNG (already in RM24 billion debt) and the borrowings from, for example, EPF, to finance the project.

2. Policy Making and logic

Bakun is being built (it is argued) as part of Malaysia’s energy policy. It is often justified by the fact that it is a hydro-electric project. This is promoted as ‘environmentally friendly’, as cheaper, and as helping balance Malaysia’s ‘energy mix’ between oil, gas, coal, hydroelectric and ‘other’ generated electricity.

The mix is aimed to be 56% gas, 36% coal, 6% hydro, and 2% others by 2010.

There are a lot of issues to discuss re energy policy. There is very little investment in alternative sources despite some obvious advantages and successes. The huge expense of Bakun and the rather odd idea that it is cheaper to take energy to Peninsular from the heart of Sarawak must make the financial claims dubious. There is already high over-capacity in the national grid, and many argued Bakun was unnecessary from the beginning. Smaller projects would have sufficed.

TNG will sign a memorandum with Sime to guarantee a price for electricity. This is rumoured to be 17 sens per kilowatt, which will be guaranteed across 25 years? This is already a high price and will be seen to be even higher in the future as costs drop and alternative sources come on line. It does not make sense for consumers but we have no choice.

Hydroelectric projects are not environmentally friendly – the huge clearance and destruction caused by Bakun is testament to that. Plus once the dam is flooded, there is increasing evidence that rotting biomass gives off not just CO2 but also methane – a highly pollutant gas.

Plus to make use of Bakun’s (unnecessary) electricity, a highly pollutant and electricity-intensive industry is now being proposed for Sarawak – aluminium smelting. The pollution this will create is directly down to Bakun.

3. Environmental Impact

700 square kilometres (69,640 hectares) will be flooded, and there is also a 1.5 million catchment area which has not been gazetted and which is being rapidly logged and given out as plantation land. (part of Sarawak Chief Minister’s patronage politics).

The transmission lines will cause further damage and there is little information about the impact of the submarine cables on marine life.

There is also well-documented impact of large dams on riverine environment and sustainability. The Rejang is the longest river in Sarawak and thousands depend on it. The Bakun HEP will almost certainly affect this, in ways difficult to predict.

4. Social Impact

One of the major impacts of the Bakun HEP has been on the rights and livelihoods of indigenous people in Sarawak. Nearly 10,000 were displaced, most of them resettled into the (predictably) catastrophic Sg Ara resettlement site. There was little or no sensitivity to the needs of indigenous communities and certainly no recognition as to any principle of giving them a choice.

This falls into the general attack on indigenous rights and ‘right to development’ that has characterised Sarawak especially under Taib. Land rights are not recognised, their customary way of life under attack (and denigrated) and the only justification offered by the government is to bring them ‘into the mainstream of development’ – meaning, as individualised wage-labourers into a capitalist system.

The Bakun HEP repeats the experience of logging and other land development on the rights of indigenous people.

5 Impact on governance

The Bakun HEP also repeats the experience of many other projects in terms of governance – transparency and accountability. There has been very little.

The EIA process was subverted when the Federal DOE gave responsibility for the EIA (actually divided into four parts, to speed it up) to the Sarawak state government, which initially refused to allow any public access to the EIA and only later published part of it.

Of course tenders for the huge project were given without competition or any accountability.

The resettlement scheme was handled by a state government-appointed committee that ignored any criticisms or suggestions – a huge reason why the resettlement was so awful. Consultants were required to sign a secrecy clause – which one did not and published a damning indictment of the resettlement plans and Bakun generally. (Rousseau, from Canada).



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