Five NGOs have slammed Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB) chief executive officer Torstein Dale Sjotveit for defending the construction of mega dams in Sarawak.
The SEB and Sjotveit should be reminded that it is morally, socially, ethically and legally obliged to respect the rights of indigenous peoples who are affected by the dams - especially those who have persistently expressed their objection and total rejection of such projects, the NGOs said in a joint statement, in a reaction to Sjotveit’s statement last Saturday.
“To ignore and disregard the stand taken by the people reflects a total disrespect of their inherent rights, and a deliberate attempt by the SEB and its management to sow discrimination and instill ill-feelings, enmity and vengeance on the local people.”
The NGOs - Borneo Research Institute Malaysia (Brimas), Jaringan Orang Asal Se-Malaysia (Joas), Gerakan Anak Sarawak (Gasak), SAVE Rivers Sarawak and Jaringan Tanah Had Adat Bangsa Asal Sarawak (Tahabas) - added that if Sjotveit (right) genuinely intended to help Sarawak develop, why was he willing to recklessly risk the lives and wellbeing of thousands of Sarawakians in order to benefit a few?
The Norwegian-born CEO even flouted the precautionary principle, which is accepted worldwide as the best practice in public and international law, the NGOs noted.
According to the SEB, Murum, Bakun and future dams in Sarawak could be multi-purpose but would primarily be used to power up heavy industries.
These industries - including smelting and chemical manufacturing - would require the intensive spewing of toxic chemical pollutants that would undoubtedly poison their air and groundwater, the NGOs said, pointing out that the production of electricity, not flood control, was prioritised in dam operations.
“If floods were to happen, a toxic leak of disastrous proportions could affect all of us,” they noted.
On the SEB’s assertion that the resettlement of people affected by dams could lead to improved livelihoods, the NGOs replied that the SEB had yet to demonstrate they could manage resettlement in a way which respected fundamental principles outlined in the human rights treaties - to which Malaysia was a signatory.
For example, the Penan and Kenyah community who were displaced by the Murum Dam had yet to learn where the land allocations they had been promised were located, and still had no access to any local schools or a health clinic that could serve their needs, the NGOs stressed.
Meanwhile, the skilled workforce for Murum was largely imported from abroad, the NGOs said, adding that without such basic infrastructure in place and no opportunities for dignified work, it was deceptive and disingenuous for the SEB to claim that there would be livelihood improvements based on their track record at Murum.
On the SEB’s speculation that the damming of the river would stop flooding in certain locations, the NGOs responded that it was not grounded in any studies that were neither specific to the Rajang river, nor more general in relation to Sarawak.
There was no strategic environmental assessment and no comprehensive basin-level studies to analyse how the damming of the Rajang river at Murum and Bakun would impact the area in the long-term.
In particular, there were no available studies that took into account the variable modeling necessary due to fluctuating rainfall patterns along the Rajang river, caused by climate change and the destruction of forest cover.
“There was no evidence to show that the Murum or Bakun dams were built with flood mitigation purposes in mind. Therefore, the claims made to date about flood mitigation are not grounded in science or backed by any factual data,” the NGOs pointed out.
Even if there had been a need for a proactive response to flooding from the Rajang river, there are less destructive ways to do this than by building large dams. Studies from around the world show that large hydroelectric dams tend to destroy the resilience of the environment, upstream and downstream.
When sediments get clogged in the reservoir, the river flowing downstream scours the shoreline, thus causing erosion, dislodging roots of trees, destroying natural barriers to flooding and reducing the productivity of agricultural land.
“SEB’s conclusions are highly premature and not based on precautions raised by studies that their own company commissioned. The environment impact assessment (EIA) for the Murum hydroelectric project clearly stated that catastrophic flooding could occur in the event of a technical failure or accident at Murum.
“(Furthermore,) the Bakun Dam was not built to withstand the extra water load from upstream. If the SEB is so concerned about the impacts of flooding on our communities, why don’t the local people around Bakun and Murum have full information about an emergency evacuation plan in the event of a flooding?” the NGOs asked.