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Thursday October 14, 2010

Bakun dam flooding begins

MIRI: The flooding of South-East Asia’s largest dam, the Bakun Dam, in Belaga district has begun.

Developer and manager Sarawak Hidro, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ministry of Finance Incorporated, dammed up the Balui River diversion tunnels to start the process of flooding 69,000ha of land.

The impoundment of the 205m high dam, the second highest concrete-rock filled dam in the world, started before 8am yesterday and by 10am, the massive gates of the diversion tunnels were closed.

All systems go: An aerial view of the Balui River diversion tunnels at the Bakun Dam in Belaga district in central Sarawak before the tunnels were closed Wednesday.

There are three river diversion tunnels, each measuring 12m wide and 12m high.

A small outlet was still open in one of the tunnels to enable a controlled amount of water to flow downstream so that the Balui River downstream would not dry up completely.

The flooding was initiated in a somewhat sudden manner at short notice after Sarawak Hidro engineers held a late meeting on Tues­day night and decided that the weather and river conditions were safe enough for damming up of the tunnels.

Some Bakun folk lodged a police report on Tuesday morning in a desperate bid to halt the flooding.

Sarawak Hidro managing director and chief engineer Zulkifle Osman told The Star from Bakun that he and his group of engineers found the condition right for the impoundment.

“We have successfully closed tunnels number 2 and 3. A small outlet in tunnel 1 is still open to release some water downstream,’’ he said.

To a suggestion that the impoundment was rushed through despite the pre-conditions that there must be seven continuous days of dry weather and water depth of below 60m were not met, he said:

“We found that the weather was good enough in the past two days and the river level safe enough, so we went ahead with the impoundment.”

It will take about seven months and two weeks for the 69,000ha area to be flooded to the top of the dam wall, which is roughly about 44 storeys high or half the height of the Petronas Twin Towers.

Once the water level reaches 195m, the water will enter the inlet and turn the turbines and the power-generation process can start.

In the meantime, natives living downstream of Bakun and environmentalists and human rights groups, expressed shock that the impoundment had proceeded despite the Bakun folk lodging a police report.

Denis Hang Bilang, secretary of the Joint Committee of Lebu Kulit, Uma Bakah, Uma Lesung and Uma Balui Ukap, said he and his longhouse folk had lodged a police report at the Belaga police station against Sarawak Hidro.

“We lodged the police report at 10am yesterday (Tuesday) and today but they (Sarawak Hidro) went ahead with the flooding. We have called on the police to halt the flooding because the compensation issue for our land has not been settled yet.

“The land in Bakun still belongs to us be­­cause the government and the dam developer have not fully compensated us for uprooting us from our original longhouses in Bakun 15 years ago,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, a Sarawak coalition of environmentalists and human rights group expressed alarm at the manner in which the flooding began.

The Sarawak Conservation Alliance for Natural Environment (SCANE) was unhappy with the manner in which Sarawak Hidro was allowed to proceed with the flooding.

“How could the Federal and state governments allow the impoundment to start when the Emergency Rescue Plan has not been made public? On Monday, a longboat capsized in Bakun and a man is still missing,” said SCANE national coordinator Raymond Abin.

“The people living in Bakun, especially downstream, have not been adequately informed of the precautionary measures to take. We fear the impoundment would trigger landslides and floods and may even trigger an earthquake,’’ he said.

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