Thursday, October 24, 2013

Expect bigger dam disasters – Kua Kia Soong

OCTOBER 24, 2013

The tragedy and disaster at the Bertam Valley, Cameron Highlands should be an eye-opener for Malaysians who have allowed the government to push through one mega dam after another especially in Sarawak.
This dam at Ringlet operates a relatively small hydroelectric plant of only 100MW by TNB and already we have seen the consequences of lax maintenance and regulation which led to sedimentation caused by unregulated “development” around the dam.
When the 2,400MW Bakun Dam was proposed, concerned Malaysian NGOs warned that such sedimentation caused by wanton logging and other “development” on surrounding land would lead not only to reduced performance but also to the kind of disaster we saw at Bertam but multiplied manifold.
As it happened, Malaysian taxpayers had to compensate Ekran close to RM1 billion when the government decided to take over the project.
In fact, while the Bakun dam was suspended at the onset of the 1997 financial crisis, Ekran Bhd, the Bakun dam contractor had harvested 1,000 hectares of forest and extracted 79,000 cubic metres of timber within the Bakun area. Imagine the extent of sedimentation this has created for the dam with the erosion of this watershed. One wonders whether the attraction for Ekran in the project was the timber extraction or the production of 2,400 MW of electricity.
Pointing to examples in other countries is no help because of Malaysia’s inimitable record of lack of regulation and maintenance. The recent water crisis in Selangor caused by spillage of diesel at a plant located near the water source is another recent example of this Malaysian malaise.
Sedimentation problem of dams
As the sediments accumulate in the reservoir especially with unregulated wanton “development” around it, the dam gradually loses its ability to store water to drive the hydroelectric turbines. Every reservoir loses storage to sedimentation although the rate at which this happens varies according to how well the surrounding environment is regulated. The damage to the turbine blades by water–borne sand and silt also reduces their generating efficiency and incur expensive repairs.
Violent tropical storms can cause a river to carry as much sediment as it would in several "normal" years. Global warming, which is predicted to cause more intense storms, will likely increase the rate of reservoir sedimentation.
As we can expect, dams further open up remote areas to road–builders, developers, loggers, farmers and miners, accelerating deforestation and soil loss. When insufficient resettlement land is made available to the people displaced, they have no choice but to clear land further up the valley or hillside.
Sediment-inflicted dams are leaving countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica with huge debts and in desperate need of building new power plants to reduce their dependence on their mega dams.
Where is the Emergency Response Plan?
We have just witnessed the lax procedure at Bertam for evacuation when there was “controlled” release of water, when just one of the gates was opened to ease off the risk of flooding. The villagers said they could not hear the siren. Were the migrant workers briefed on the emergency response plan? Is there an emergency response plan in the event of a dam disaster?
Can you imagine the magnitude of the disaster if it happened at the 2,400 MW Bakun dam or the nearly impounded 1000MW Murum dam? During the nineties when the 10,000 indigenous people were being displaced downstream, we asked the authorities if there was an Emergency Response Plan but were met by the usual bureaucratic indifference.
No doubt we will witness the crocodile tears of government officials and the standard pledges to find out the causes but Malaysians should ask the government to show us the emergency response plan for all the various dam projects.
We question the need for mega dams in states like Sarawak with total energy demand adequately met by current supply without these monstrosities or we will be held culpable for the ethnocide of thousands of indigenous peoples who are displaced from their ancestral land. - October 24, 2013.
* Dr Kua Kia Soong is adviser to Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
~ The Malaysian Insider

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