Sarawak, the dam-ed state — Leong Chow Pong (loyarburok.com)
AUG 20 — Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, has a population of approximately 2.3 million. In its aims to be a developed state along with the rest of Malaysia by 2020, it has over the years embarked on several quests to transform its agriculture-based economy into a more industrialised one, while developing its commercial agriculture in tandem.
Supporting this transformation and its population growth is a network of power generators located in the major cities of the state. Combined, these generators have a capacity of 1,300MW, which include a comfortable reserve margin of 40 per cent from the state’s peak demand of 900MW.
Today, Sarawak generates 9 per cent of its power by hydropower. By 2013, this figure is poised to increase significantly — through the completion of the controversial Bakun and Murum dams with a combined capacity of 3,300MW, or 72 per cent of the state’s energy mix.
With Bakun and Murum connected to the grid, Sarawak will have an alarming reserve margin of 410 per cent. Lack of committed takers for the energy is causing concerns of an imminent energy glut in the state.
Without a concrete plan to address the energy glut, the state energy producer sparked further controversy through a presentation entitled “Chinese Power Plants in Malaysia ? Present and Future Development” in October 2009 during the China-Asean Power Co-operation and Development Forum in Nanning, China.
In this presentation, Sarawak plans to build 12 additional dams to fulfil future, uncertain industrial demands. The planned dams will be built on the Ulu Air, Metjawah, Belaga, Baleh, Belepeh, Lawas, Tutoh, Limbang (feasibility study commenced), Baram (pre-feasibility study commenced), Murum (construction starts in 2011) and Linau rivers.
The plan will also include an extension to the existing Batang Ai dam (detailed study commenced). When all these dams are completed, they will push the total power capacity of Sarawak to 7,000MW by 2020 — a whopping 600 per cent more than the current demand.
Questions that arise are: why has there not been any public engagement when the feasibility studies for some have commenced? And which economy in the world will grow by 600 per cent in 10 years?
Another reason which concerns environmentalists is the presentation above was not made public, but was accidently published in a Chinese website. Implementing projects of such magnitude and socio-environmental impact without consulting the public does not go down well with the people, especially after the bad experience with Bakun.
Without committed take-ups for the excess power, these dams seem poised to end up as white elephant projects at the most severe expense of the affected ecosystems and communities. These dams will potentially displace thousands of people and submerge several Penan, Kelabit and Kenyah villages.
One of the said dams, Tutoh dam, may submerge part of the Mulu National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Sarawak government’s proposal to build the dams, and then start looking for users for the energy generated, reflects the inconsistencies in the country’s energy and environment policies. It also illustrates a planning strategy that is supply driven and therefore inconsistent with the principles of sustainable development.
While hydro power was controversially categorised as renewable energy, its adverse environmental and sociological impacts have also been identified during and after many reservoir constructions. Throughout the life cycle, whether hydro power ultimately is beneficial or detrimental has been debated since the 1960s.
The damming of a river creates a reservoir upstream where waters spill out into the surrounding environments, flooding the natural habitats that existed before the dam’s construction — completely destroying and eliminating all lifeforms within the perimeter of the dam. These lifeforms include carbon-rich plants and trees that upon death releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
There is also a school of thought claiming that the high amount of biomass converted into methane results in pollution potentially 3.5 times more than an oil-fired power plant would for the same generation capacity. This is because large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. Then after this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir’s bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane. This is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam’s turbines.
The impact to global warming is significant because methane’s effect on global warming is 21 times stronger than carbon dioxide’s.
As it stands today, when the 12 new dams are completed according to the state’s plan, hydro will make up 85 per cent of the total power generation in Sarawak, making the state a dam-ed state.
* This article first appeared here.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or the publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.