What is a hydroelectric dam?
The damming of great rivers is among the most dramatic, deliberate impacts that humans have on their environment. The SCORE dams in Sarawak are hydroelectric dams that would produce power as water passes through the dam. Once a dam is built an artificial lake, or reservoir, is created behind the dam. The Bakun Dam reservoir has flooded around 700 square kilometers of farmland and rainforest, an area equivalent to the size of Singapore.
Globally, an estimated 50,000 large dams now block most big river systems, and an estimated 40 to 80 million people have been displaced by dams. Given the large human and environmental impacts of dams, many dam projects are met with fierce opposition. In parts of Southeast Asia many hydropower dams are being canceled or suspended as governments face strong opposition and are forced to take responsibility for the social and environmental impacts of dams.
For more information on dams and river health read the FAQ by International Rivers.
The Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy
Between 2006 and 2010 the federal government of Malaysia announced a series of five proposed economic corridors in an attempt to stimulate global and domestic investment in rural areas across the country. SCORE, or the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, is one of these five corridors. Between six and twelve dams are scheduled to be completed in Sarawak by 2020 as part of SCORE. One of these dams, the Bakun Dam, is now operational but only operates at half-capacity. The Murum Dam is in advanced stages of development. The Baram and Baleh dams are next in line to be built, and are being met with fierce opposition.
The adjective “renewable” in SCORE is an inaccurate description as exploitation of coal reserves, construction of new coal power plants, and deforestation from oil palm plantation expansion are part of the SCORE plan. The new power is intended to feed energy intensive industries such as aluminium and steel production, two of the priority sectors under SCORE. The main interested investors in energy-intensive industries are Malaysian companies Press Metal (aluminium smelter), Tokuyama (polycrystalline silicon plant), OM Materials (manganese and ferrosilicon alloy smelter) and Asia Minerals Ltd (manganese smelter).
Why build the dams?
The government and the dam builder, Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), claim that the dams will create the energy needed to develop industry in Sarawak. Studies from the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley find otherwise. Learn how diversified energy systems can more efficiently provide rural energy, and how Sarawak can meet industrial growth without expanding the SCORE mega-dams in the Alternatives Section. Find out more about the why the government wants to build the dams on the Corruption Page (spoiler alert: large development projects make companies and their government cronies TONS of money).
Who’s building the dams?
Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB) is responsible for the planning of all hydropower projects and coal plants in Sarawak. SEB is a 100% state-owned electricity supplier in Sarawak under the State Financial Secretary. It is chaired by Abdul Hamed Sepawi, the cousin and one of the closest business allies of Sarawak’s infamous former Chief Minister Taib Mahmud. Sepawi made a fortune from logging contracts granted by his cousin. With an estimated fortune of USD 175 million, he was ranked Malaysia’s 38th richest person by Forbes Asia in 2012. The Chinese companies Sinohydro and the China Three Gorges Corporation are in charge of construction.
Who is fighting the dams?
A local alliance of affected communities including the Baram Protection Action Committee (BPAC), the Sarawak-wide network SAVE Rivers, and the national coalition of Indigenous People Jaringan Orang Asal Se-Malaysia (JOAS) are working together to raise awareness of the destruction and dispossession that will be caused by the development of the dams. In October 2013, Baram community members established two road blockades to prevent construction, surveying work and logging at the proposed location of the Baram Dam. As a result, preparatory construction works have remained stalled. Protests and demonstrations occur regularly. In September of 2015 Chief Minister Adenan Satem announced a moratorium on the Baram dam, but he has yet to put this promise in writing.
Mega-Dams: Centuries’ Old Technology on the Way Out
Mega hydro-dams are an impractical, illogical, and outdated technology. In 2000, the World Commission on Dams, an entity established in 1998 by the World Bank and the IUCN to review large dam projects all over the world, concluded that on average dam projects face cost-overruns of 56%, that promoters systematically exaggerate expected benefits, and that 55% of the analysed dams generated less power than projected. Similarly, a 2014 study out of Oxford University finds that, “even before accounting for negative impacts on human society and environment, the actual construction costs of large dams are too high to yield a positive return.”
Trends in the US towards decommissioning dams have experienced resounding success. In 2014, 72 dams were removed, restoring more than 730 miles of streams for the benefit of fish, wildlife, and people. Within the last few years Vietnam has cancelled construction of over 30 dams. China was forced to cancel construction of a dam on the Jinsha river that would have displaced up to 100,000 people.
Read about Thayer Scudder, the world’s leading expert on the impact of dams and relocation, and how he decided that large dams aren’t worth the cost in The New York Times. Check out a map of decomissioned dams in the US here.