Friday, June 26, 2015

Sibu locals talk of life in the shadow of Bakun Dam

25 Jun 2015 06:00 PM

by Philip Hii
SIBU: The controversies surrounding dam-related disasters are occupying the minds of many in Sibu again, following the recent 5.9 magnitude earthquake in Ranau, Sabah. 
The unprecedented tragic incident on June 5 killed 18 people on the slopes of Mt Kinabalu and caused substantial damage to properties.
When the authorities began building the gigantic Bakun Dam in the 1990s, many people living in villages and towns downstream rose up against its construction for fear of one day becoming victims of any dam-related accidents.
There was an “exodus” of rich and financially-capable Sibu residents to where they believed were safer grounds. They starting buying residential properties in cities like Kuching and Miri, thus directly pushing up property prices in these cities almost instantly.
The fears seem to have subsided with the completion and eventual commissioning of the 205m tall dam, incidentally one of the world’s tallest, in 2011.
“The Sabah earth quake is a reminder of the fears I have about Bakun Dam. I still remember “rumours” saying that the rocks on one side of the hill where the dam is built is not strong enough to bear the pressure of the water build up behind the dam,” a successful businessman who only wished to be identified as Ling told Theantdaily.
Ling, like many other Sibuans, had since moved with his own family to stay in Kuching about 15 years ago while his aged parents were left behind.
It was reported that in 1983, a German geologist who was conducting a preliminary study on the proposed Bakun Dam had told the press that if indeed the rocks were not solid enough to bear the pressure, it would be disastrous as the dam might break or even cause an earthquake. That geologist was also quoted as saying that such disaster had indeed happened in Russia.
 Meanwhile in Sibu, another businessman Alan Tie said the worries and  fears about the safety of huge dams were real because he reasoned that people could not precisely predict disasters, whether natural or man-made.
“The Sabah earthquake came as a complete surprise as nobody has pre-knowledge about it. We don’t even have an early warning or detection system installed. What about Bakun or Murum Dam? Have the authorities installed any modern devices to detect and warn the people who are going to be affected in case of a major disaster?” Tie asked.
Another Sibu resident surnamed Lau who is a farmer said he believed Bakun Dam had brought some benefits to the farmers with its huge reservoir helping to regulate the flow of water on the Rajang River.
“We don’t experience floods in recent years. I think the storage of excessive water at the dam’s reservoir has prevented flooding downriver. Certainly the government flood mitigation projects here have also been effective in the prevention of flooding in Sibu,” Lau added.
But Lau admitted that he was also worried about the possibility of Bakun Dam breaking down due to technical faults or natural disasters.
“Where are we going to run when so much water is rushing down? We don’t have high ground in the town, there is no escape,” Lau quipped.
However when interviewed over the phone, businessman Simon Ha explained that due to the flat topography of Sibu, the town would not be seriously affected in case the dam actually broke.
He gave an example that if we poured a glass of water on a flat surface such as a table, the water would spill over quite evenly with very minimal force, unlike if the water was poured on a slope which would see the water rushing down with full force.
It is indeed a correct assumption. The 1995 Bakun Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Report stated that Sibu would be out of the disaster zone should there be an accident. The flood water level is estimated to be about one metre high whereas Kapit and Song would be two metres under water and both were considered within the disaster zone.
Outspoken large dam critic Wong Meng Chuo who has a Masters’ degree in Environment Management from Imperial College, London University, said the worries and fears of the people were justified.
He blamed the authorities, including Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB) for not being transparent enough in the dissemination of information on Bakun Dam as well as Murum Dam.
“I believe there are possibilities of large dam failure due to natural or dam-related disasters. The affected people living near the dam and those residing downstream have every right to know what the mitigation measures are,” Wong stressed.
He questioned if SEB had already implemented the early warning system in Bakun and Murum dams which would warn the affected people of the impending disaster.
Wong disclosed that according to the Bakun EIA Report, the arrival time of  water rushing down from Bakun Dam would take one hour to reach Belaga, three hours to reach Nanga Merit, eight hours to reach Kapit, twelve hours to reach Song and 24 hours to reach Sibu.
He also said the authorities should educate the public through training on rescue and evacuation.
Wong pointed out that the 1995 Bakun EIA Report stated that the report was incomplete due to lack of information and asked if further studies had already been done to complete the report.
Wong also brought up the issue of accountability and responsibility. Who would be responsible for the loss of life and properties in the event that the dams in Sarawak directly or indirectly caused a major disaster?
“Is it SEB or the state government? If they are responsible, are they also not responsible to buy insurance for the people to cover for their lives and properties?” Wong asked.
Wong strongly urged that the authorities release more information especially on the safety aspects of Bakun and Murum dams and also to immediately reverse the decision to construct Balleh Dam and Baram Dam.
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