Change of stance at his convenience


the writer at the Bakun Dam project site in central Sarawak during the advanced stages of its construction in the Belaga district. pic by stephen

THE comments by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad that the state government of Sarawak should reconsider plans for the building of mega-dams is “most interesting” indeed.

The former prime minister had reportedly said in Kuching during an international energy conference two days ago that the state should consider smaller alternatives to mega-dams and that he (Dr Mahathir) shared the concern of the natives towards the impact of mega-dams on the people and the environment.

I checked with local journalists in Kuching who covered the event and they confirmed that Dr Mahathir had indeed said it was better for the state to build smaller dams.

I say Dr Mahathir’s suggestion is “most interesting” because in 1996, it was the then prime minister and his Cabinet that had approved the Bakun project.

The Bakun Dam is the second largest dam project of its kind in the world, second only to the Three Gorges Dam in China.

It is the largest in South-East Asia and definitely the biggest in Malaysia.

That is mega indeed, and for Dr Mahathir to say today that he was not in favour of mega-dams, then he had obviously changed his stance from the days when he was the PM.

I was at the Bakun site when Dr Mahathir, state leaders and the developer of the diversion tunnels held a ceremony on the banks of the Balui River to symbolically launch the Bakun project.

A dynamite was ignited to blast the rocks to create the tunnels.

During the launching ceremony, a champagne bottle was smashed against the rock surface to signify the start of the tunnelling stage of the project.

At that time, the whole of the Bakun region was forested.

There were huge trees all over the place, some of them towering 30m high.

There were no roads leading to Bakun then.

I, and other journalists covering the event, had to use express boats, speedboats and then longboats from Sibu to Kapit along the mighty Rajang River, pass the Pelagus rapids to Belaga town and then into the Balui River before landing at the site where the Bakun Dam is today.

It was a 12-hour journey on the turbulent river.

Engineering marvel: Construction of the Bakun Dam, the biggest in the region, finished in December 2010 and power generation began in October 2011.
Engineering marvel: Construction of the Bakun Dam, the biggest in the region, finished in December 2010 and power generation began in October 2011.

At the launching ceremony for the diversion tunnel, Dr Mahathir had said that there were no other alternatives for the generation of cheap electricity en-masse except to build the mega Bakun Dam.

He had said that the electricity from Bakun would light up the whole country.

For those not familiar with the project’s history, the Bakun project located in ulu Belaga district in Kapit Division in central Sarawak has drawn intense controversies and criticisms from environmentalists and social activists locally and abroad during the 15 years from start of construction to its finish.

Until today, the Bakun Dam is still being criticised by the NGOs.

But there can be no denying the dam structure is an engineering marvel.

I had been to the very top of Bakun Dam and also the very bottom of it.

Twice, I went for inside tours of the entire dam structure.

The very top of the main dam wall is a 215m-high structure that is the second highest concrete face rockfilled dam in the world.

The very deep end of the power generation plant is where eight huge turbines were fitted into a structure that is built three stories underneath the ground surface.

The Bakun Dam towers 215m above the Bakun valley, the same height as the 44th floor of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, or roughly half its height.

The length of the Bakun Dam from one end to the other is 740m, about two-thirds of a kilometre.

The base of the dam measures 750m thick. There is a two-lane highway on top of the dam that allows cars and trucks to move.

Mountain surfaces that measure more than 1km high had to be meticulously smoothen and carved into shape to fit the structural designs for the dam.

The river diversion tunnels measured 1.2km and they were built by drilling right through the base of the mountain, some 200m deep and 12m wide.

There were three of such tunnels and they allow the entire Balui River to run through them.

At the top section of the dam, there are eight inlets that take in water from a 210m-high man-made reservoir that drowned an area the size of Singapore island.

There are two huge man-made spillways that look like concrete rivers that are enclosed by steel gates measuring 21m high. Each of the gate weighs 300 tonnes!

The entire dam wall have nearly 17 million cu m of rocks and concrete!

To summarise these amazing physical attributes of the dam, just imagine the tallest and biggest pyramid in Egypt being transported to Bakun and planted upside down.

The Bakun Dam was carved out of the steep mountains, with some 4,500 workers working tediously carrying out onsite construction and meticulous checks daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly since 1996, expect for a 18-month period during the 1997-1998 financial crisis when the project was shelved by the government.

The Bakun project is a Federal Government-owned project, developed and managed by Sarawak Hidro Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of the Finance Ministry Incorporated.

Physical construction finished in December 2010 and power generation began in October 2011.

I visited Bakun nine times in all, the first time when dynamite was used to blast the diversion tunnels and the last time when the flooding of the dam began.

The costs of the Bakun Dam project was supposed to be only about RM2bil at the start when it was proposed.

There was a 100% cost overrun by the time it was in its advanced stage.

Due to the financial crisis of 1997, the cost of the project was revised to well over RM9bil when it was restarted in the third quarter of 1998.

At least, that was what some environmentalists claimed.

In fact, some opposition politicians said the total amount of taxpayers’ money that went into the Bakun Dam project was at least RM15bil, taking into account the compensation for delays, inflationary costs, interests paid to the financial institutions and overheads expenses and also “financial wastages”.

Officially, the Government maintained that Bakun Dam only cost RM7bil or so.

Whatever the real figure is, the dam was indeed a very costly project and definitely a super mega-project.

So, for Dr Mahathir to say that it was not viable to build mega-dams, then he had obviously back-tracked from his stance from the days when he was the PM.

What a “most-interesting” change of stance.

What would Sarawak state leaders say now, I wonder? How would they respond to Dr Mahathir’s latest statement?

Would they scale down or abort all the other 11 mega-dam projects that had been drawn up under the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (Score) belt?

Whatever it is, I think you readers would agree that politicians are indeed “most interesting” people.

Personally, I feel that when politicians speak, we should listen with our ears, analyse with our brain and remember in our heart that there is a possibility they may completely change their stance in the not-so-distant future.

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