Bakun Dam Case Study

Environmental Economics The Bakun Dam Project In Sarawak

For more than 30 years, there have been discussions concerning the development of the Bakun Dam in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. If built, the dam would be the largest in South-East Asia. The Bakun Dam: A Case Study indicates that generating 2400 megawatts of power, it would provide electricity for all of Sarawak, and for industries and cities in mainland Malaysia, through a cable under the South China Sea. At 650 kilometres, this would be by far the longest cable in the world.

The Bakun Dam has been a highly controversial issue spanning over three decades as its validity and use to the people of Malaysia have been questioned. For the cost that involves producing this dam, at seven billion dollars and rising, is there a need for so much power at all? The main environmental issue here is whether Sarawak should sacrifice forests in order to promote the economic growth of its country or cease construction to preserve the traditional environment and standards of living.

It is essential to the people of Malaysia that the construction of the dam continues, as it will benefit them in the future through industrialisation. This dam can be seen as a source of employment for the nation, the creation of international interest, and increased economic growth. There are also many negatives to the completion of the dam; which include the displacement of natives, increased foreign debt, and the gradual deterioration of the dam after many years. There are many other factors that contribute to this issue, however, the above three positive components are fundamental to the further growth of Malaysia.

The main stakeholders involved in this area of interest include Malaysian non-governmental organisations opposed to the project, indigenous peoples affected, non-governmental organisations outside Malaysia opposed the project, Malaysian State and Federal governments, Ekran Berhand (the developer), and international corporations contributing to the project.

The Bakun Dam has had an uncertain, highly controversial history. The project is of importance to Malaysian political and business leaders as there is a promise of abundant electricity and a lever by which Sarawak could be lifted out of its "backward" state. It has been said that for environmentalists and the native people, the project would flood tropical forests and force the resettlement of approximately 10 000 people in order to generate high cost electricity, for which no market might exist (Dams Initiative). These contrasting perspectives on the Bakun Dam make it valuable as a case study to identify the best power solution for a nation's economic problem.

There have been many complications regarding the Bakun Dam since its...

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It has been more than 600 days since the Baram Dam Blockade is set up. I have written a post about the negative impact due to the construction of dam last year (What Is Wrong With Mega Dam - The Baram Dam Project) after attending a charity lunch aimed to raise fund for the protest towards the construction of Baram Dam in Sarawak. For this semester I need to do an oral presentation on any topic related to my current field which is Environmental Studies during my English class (which is compulsory for each and everyone in UPM ugh, well I didn't say I dislike it). So I think this is a good time for me to bring up this issue again through direct transfer of message in the class. And I don't like giving speech, I just don't.

The beautiful view on Bakun Dam which hides the ugliness under the water.
(photo taken from Mohd Hisyamudin's blog)

We are required to prepare a audience analysis questionaire to see how much the audience knows about the topic you are going to talk about. Well, everyone knows what a dam is but mostly not sure whether a dam is beneficial overall or not. I am glad that they chose 'not sure' instead of a yes or no because I believe it sparkled some thoughts inside them, although it might last just for awhile. The main purpose of my speech is, again, to inform my audience the negative impact of dam construction in Malaysia in terms of environment and also demography of indigenous people. This time I am going to focus on just one single dam in Malaysia as the case study so that people can see it more clearly and feel it more deeply because it happens in our country, on fellow Malaysians even though the dam is located across the sea in Sarawak!

Distance between Bakun Dam consturction site and the resettlement area at Asap River.
(image taken from Google Map)

How was it started?

Bakun Dam is not as lucky as Baram Dam which at least, people are still able to fight for their fate. Despite of people's protest towards its construction, Bakun Dam was successfully constructed in 2010 after the third attempt of struggling in a series of complicated stories (you can try to find out on Google). The original purposes of the construction of Bakun Dam as announced by the government were:
  • come out with a sustainable and significant source of electricity
  • generate employment
  • bring development to indigenous people
  • provide infrastructures to remote area which might also be turned into a tourist hotspot

Promises were made that the indigenous people will get free housing, free utilites, free education and easy access to Bintulu if they agreed to move to the resettlement area at Asap. To persuade the indigenous people to move to the resettlement area, besides compensation in terms of payment promised, threats to withhold the compensation, threats to take action on those who move somewhere else other than the assigned location and closing down the facilities at Bakun were done to facilitate the process. The indigenous people signed the contract without fully understood what's really going on because there were no proper consultation for them and the contract was in English.

This dam is twice the height of the Statue of Liberty (205 m) and covers an area as big as Singapore (700 km2)!
(photo taken from Borneo Post Online)

The Resettlement Area

Indigenous people have very unique culture which is very different from ours. Our house consists of living room, bed room, toilet and kitchen basically. However, theirs consists of areas specified for certain purposes such as water catchment area, cultivation land, hunting ground etc. I believe most of us have not heard of such thing before, so did the people in charged of constructing the resettlement area. It was a really horrifying (to me) cultural shock experienced by the indigenous people. They have to get used to the new place and also the new structure of their home.

The promised facilities were provided, in a very bad condition: inadequate roads, broken houses, sewage system leading to the river etc. The longhouses built did not fulfil the indigenous people's cultural requirement or even broke some of the cultural rules (since the longhouses were built by foreign company). Despite of all these, each family was charged a fortune for the new house. Compensation payment? Well it was used to offset the house purchase! 

To make a living, indigenous people rely largely on the natural resources of the forest and rivers. It turned out that natural resources were insufficient to sustain a living at Asap, which means everything will have to be bought instead of harvested. The way of living will have to be switched from self-sustaining to employment. Then there came the problem of working opportunity. Only one out of five oil palm companies has started operating at the area, and it would take 5 years for the oil palms to mature before the workers are needed to start working. 

I would have been driven crazy if that happened to me. The whole social structure was shattered and people fleeing the place, looking for a new place to stay. Hopeless and helpless. You can look up for more information regarding dam constructions and the consequences on the environment and also the indigenous people's welfare (can be easily obtained on Google as the issues are reported by various media). Let me end this post with a photo of the greeneries in Bakun before the dam construction. Things may not be as good as they are preached, especially those that are done purely for personal benefits.
This was taken at Bakun in December, 2008.
(credit goes to See Nature blog)

P/S: This post was supposed to be finished last semester but I forgot about it. So I did some final touch up and publish it now. To read more in detailed, you can read this contributing paper to the World Commission on Dams prepared by The Coalition of Concerned NGOs on Bakun (Gabungan), Malaysia: The Resettlement of Indigenous People Affected by the Bakun Hydro-Electric Project, Sarawak, Malaysia.

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