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Activists form network to fight Sarawak dam-building spree

Last October indigenous groups, local people, and domestic NGOs formed the Save Sarawak’s Rivers Network to fight the planned construction of a dozen dams in the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. The coalition opposes the dam-building plans, known as the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) initiative, due to its impacts on indigenous and river communities, the destruction of pristine rainforest, and the degradation of the state’s rivers.

“At the moment, there is no coordinated effort by the indigenous communities and civil societies to campaign against the construction of these destructive mega-dam projects. Therefore there is an urgent need to initiate a state, national and international campaign against these mega-dams,” Save Sarawak’s Rivers Network’s chairperson, Peter Kallang, said in a press conference this week as reported by Free Malaysia Today. He noted that of paramount importance was to reach out to those directly impacted by the dams.

Bakun dam in Sarawak. For details see David Tryse’s Flooding Borneo’s rainforest: Sarawak’s confidential dam plans 2008-2020 [Google Earth KMZ file]

Five foreign NGOs from the U.S. and EU have also announced support of the nascent coalition, including The Bruno Manser Fund, International Rivers, Borneo Project, Rainforest Action Network (US) and the Rainforest Foundation Norway.

After long delays and cost overruns, one of the dozen dams has already been completed, the 2,400 megawatt Bakun dam. The dam displaced around 10,000 indigenous people and flooded 70,000 hectares of rainforest.

While the Sarawak government has argued that the dams are needed to power the state, the Bakun dam alone produces more than double the power used by Sarawak at peak times. The additional power is likely to go to a planned aluminum smelter run by Cahaya Mata Sarawak (CMS) and Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. Another dam, the 900 megawatt Murum dam, is currently under construction.

“The construction of the dams will not bring development to the people directly affected but it does bring severe and permanent damages to the whole environment and to the community at large,” Kallang said. “Development for the people must be for the immediate and above all, long term good of all the people and not just a few, who own shares in power generation and big corporations.”

Proponents of dam building have argued that they are “green” energy sources. However dams built in the tropics have been shown to release massive amounts of the methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, due to rotting vegetation trapped in the reservoir. A study last year found that a dam in Laos was still a significant source of greenhouse gases a decade after being built, emitting between 1.2 and 3.2 gigagrams of carbon annually. Another dam, however, was no longer a source of emissions after 40 years.

Save Sarawak Rivers will be holding a conference this week in Miri, including the presentation of papers by eight key speakers.

CITATION: Vincent Chanudet, Stéphane Descloux, Atle Harby, Håkon Sundt, Bjørn Henrik Hansen, Odd Brakstad, Dominique Serça, Frédéric Guerin. Gross CO2 and CH4 emissions from the Nam Ngum and Nam Leuk sub-tropical reservoirs in Lao PDR. Science of The Total Environment. Volume 409, Issue 24, 15 November 2011, Pages 5382-5391.

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