Environmentalists angry over Borneo dam plans

Posted on December 21, 2010. Filed under: Energy |


On the island of Borneo, environmentalists and tribal elders are angry about the Malaysian government’s plans to dam rivers, which would flood large areas of the island. Borneo is shared between three nations – there’s the eastern Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, the country of Brunei and the Indonesian province of Kalimantan. It’s a key region for biodiversity, providing a home to some of the world’s rarest species of plants and animals, like the orangutan, pygmy elephant and rhinoceros.

Presenter: Luke Hunt
Speakers: S.M. Muthu, spokesman for the Malaysia Nature Society, Cynthia Ong, Executive Director for LEAP Conservancy.

HUNT: US-based Survival International has joined a chorus of conservation groups and NGOs warning the Malaysian government of the dangers associated with ambitious plans to build more dams on Borneo.

It says tribes in the rainforests of the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are facing a double green energy threat as hydroelectric dams destroy their rivers, and their forests are cleared for palm oil plantations.

Approvals for construction of at least three dams in the Kaiduan Valley and near Kota Belud in Sabah have been granted. Another dam on the Tutoh River is planned for Sarawak where the massive Bakun Dam has already displaced tens of thousands of people.

The government says these dams and perhaps more will be needed to ensure East Malaysian water and electricity are met over the coming decades. But conservationists like S.M. Muthu — a spokesman for the Malaysia Nature Society – disagree and instead want the government to focus on halting the destruction of habitat that forms natural catchment areas.

Muthu says engineers have examined East Malaysia’s infrastructure needs and determined dams are not necessary to meet energy requirements given the abundance of fast flowing rivers and natural catchments that are already capable of producing electricity.

This is primarily because of Mount Kinabalu, a massive mountain that stands more than 4,000 metres above sea level. Many argue its fast flowing rivers and rapids are already sufficient to provide electricity.

MUTHU: Sabah is unique in that sense that we have the Mount Kinabalu and that there’s non-stop flowing water and if they want to produce hydro-power we have engineers who have come here and they said you don’t need a dam to produce electricity the water is flowing all the way and in fact you can extract electricity or produce electricity at different levels.

We have already had problem with Sarawak, Bakun Dam and so on, thousands of people were replaced and until today they are still waiting for proper settlement and compensation. They had to give up their traditional, spiritual place of birth, their ancestors. It’s just money to go and live in another place and it’s a promise which has yet to be kept.

The problem is we are destroying the water catchment areas. Then we have a lack of water. Then we want to build dams which is actually trying to find a solution to a problem we keep repeating. Whereas if you go to the root cause of the problem and we maintain our water catchment areas we you don’t even need a dam.

HUNT: Residents in the Kaiduan valley have tried to stop preliminary work on the dam by building a blockade at the site where they have raised a 1.8-metre Christian cross.

Protests over the dam planned in Kota Belud have been launched while activists in Sarawak say a hydropower dam on the Tutoh River risks changing the boundary of a national park and this has legal ramifications as it could see its World Heritage status revoked under regulations imposed by the United Nations cultural body UNESCO.

Cynthia Ong, the executive director for environmental advocacy group LEAP Conservancy, says international legal agreements by the countries that share Borneo are already in place for the protection of the island. But there seems to be little will power when it comes to enforcing such agreements.

ONG: For example the heart of Borneo, the three nation agreement – Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei – it’s a tri-nation agreement to protect this area basically that encompasses these three countries within the heart Borneo.

It’s a very high level, top down agreement and I think the value is how we use it and apply it so it makes sense and has an impact on the ground. If it just stays as a document with three signatures then it’s nothing. I’d like to see how we on the ground can actually make use of these kinds of declarations. We’re on that path but it it’s a long road.

HUNT: Muthu also fears that unless such agreements can be enforced and Borneo developed in a way which is sensitive to its environment and local population then previous problems that have tarnished this country’s environmental credentials will be repeated.

MUTHU: Without fear, without favour without fame, without fortune, we want to put Sabah as an example not just to Malaysia or Southeast Asia, maybe even to the world.


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