Sarawak, the Dam-ed State

A consideration regarding the inconsistency between the national energy policy and the building of 12 dams that in a mere 10 years will generate 600% more power than current demand.

Green Ink - LoyarBurok's environmental rights column

Green Ink - LoyarBurok's environmental rights column

Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, has a population of approximately 2.3million. In its aims to be a developed state along with the rest of Malaysia by 2020, has over the years embarked on several quests to economics initiatives 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 city of the state. Combined, these generators have a capacity of 1300MW, which includes a comfortable reserve margin of 40% from the state’s peak demand of 900MW.

Hydroelectric in the energy mix

Today, Sarawak generates 9% of its power by hydropower. By 2013, this figure poised to increase significantly – through the completion of the controversial Bakun and Murum dams with a combined capacity of 3300MW, or 72% of the state’s energy mix.

With Bakun and Murum connected to the grid, Sarawak will have an alarming reserve margin of 410%. Lack of committed taker for the energy fuels are causing concerns of an imminent energy glut in the state.

sarawak dams map

(Source: The Star)

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 Cooperation 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 in Ulu Air, Metjawah, Belaga, Baleh, Belepeh, Lawas, Tutoh, Limbang (feasibility study commenced), Baram (pre-feasibility study commenced), Murum (construction starts 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 7000MW by 2020 – a whopping 600% more than the current demand.

Questions that arise are, why has there not been any public engagement when the feasibility studies for some has commenced? And which economy in the world will grow by 600% in 10 years?

Another reason which concerns environmentalist 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.

Proposed Dams and Social Impact

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 of the affected ecosystems and communities. These dams potentially displace thousands of people and submerge several Penan, Kelabit and Kenyah villages.

One of the said dam, Tutoh dam, may submerge part of the Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mulu Tutoh River

Mulu-Tutoh River (Source:

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.

Sarawak, the Dam-ed State

As it stands today, when the 12 new dams complete according to the State’s plan, hydro will make up 85% of the total generation in Sarawak, making the state, a Dam-ed state.

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Posted on 19 August 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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