Bakun project holds water

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 29 Jun 2003

The Bakun dam project may have been out of the public eye for some time now, but the owners are wary of the controversy it couldstill stir. Thus, they are treading carefully as they see the project to its end, writes SUSAN TAM. 

THINK of a forest that’s slightly larger than the size of Singapore being cleared to make way for a RM1.8bil hydroelectric dam.  

No prize for correctly guessing it is Bakun dam, which is now well known for its size and the controversial issues it sparked off when it was just being started. 

At that time, environmentalists were riled up by the lack of concern for forest and wildlife conservation that seemed to be displayed by the project owners. Besides the destruction of the forest, the inundation that would follow would also displace the people who had been living their for countless generations, causing them to lose their traditional livelihood. 

To recap, Bakun dam will be the world’s second highest, concrete-faced, rock-fill dam after completion, next to the famous Three Gorges Dam in China. The project captured international attention because of its sheer size, its impact on Sarawak’s natural environment and issues faced by the main contractor and the foreign company that secured the engineering, procurement and construction contract. 

AERIAL VIEW: Bakun's main dam will be located at the bottom left corner. The outlets of the river diversion tunnels are located in the centre. The Balui river has been diverted from the right towards the top of the pic.

Construction of the dam, located along the Balui River, was put on hold due to the 1997 financial crisis, but was revived several years ago. 

Its main contract, known as the CW2 Package, was awarded to the Malaysia-China Hydro Joint Venture (MCHJV) last year to complete the 205m-structure that will generate about 2,400 megawatts (MW) of electricity to East Malaysia alone. 

The consortium, led by Sime Darby Bhd, comprises of six companies and includes Sarawakian company Edward & Sons Sdn Bhd and China National Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering Corporation.  

Earlier this year, a pact was signed between MCHJV and government-owned Bakun developer Sarawak Hidro Sdn Bhd – an indication that the project will proceed as planned. 

“The question that has been raised over the years is whether or not there is justification for the massive deforestation that takes place,” said Sarawak Hidro construction general manager Tan Chuan Ngan. 

Contractors given the responsibility of building this structure are well aware of these concerns and have planned out restoration programmes to minimise the damage to the environment, he assured. 

“In some ways, you can say that the clearing of the forest will be detrimental to the environment, but we look at the long-term benefits gauged from a project this size,” he told journalists visiting the 695sq km site recently.  

The project will harness renewable and clean resource, unlike oil, gas and coal, and is in line with the Fuel Diversification Policy, said Tan, adding that the effects of deforestation were “minimal” in return for clean energy to be generated and used to power industries in both Sabah and Sarawak, which is increasing at about 7.8% per year. 

“Although the forest will be depleted, the clean and renewable energy will replace fossil fuel and reduce our dependency on this natural resource as it will diminish in the future. The project will contribute close to 0% to global warming and power generation will be emission-free.” 

He further assured that a programme involving replanting of trees will be carried out to replace what was lost during the construction of the dam. 

“At the completion of the project, this whole area will not even resemble a dam,” he said. 

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been approved by the National Resources and Environmental Board (NREB) and the contractors have complied with the regulations set by NREB, Tan said. 

“Some of the major EIA requirements have already been met and these include dam safety (which meant the dam should be designed to withstand earthquakes) and putting in place an Emergency Response Plan. 

“The protection of water quality is also maintained as we make sure that we completely remove biomass and timber from about 100km from the shoreline, to minimise contamination of the river.” 

The MCHJV has appointed a technical committee to monitor the development of the project and independent auditors make regular visits to the site. 

One of the major changes in the project is the abandonment of the plan to lay submarine cables to supply power from Bakun to Peninsular Malaysia.  

The justification of a project this size was also raised, as the demand for electricity in East Malaysia may not grow to such high levels in 2007. Presently, its demand stands at 800mw. 

Tan said that the plan to build the RM8bil aluminium smelter in the vicinity is justification enough for the dam, as smelters generally require high levels of electricity. An agreement was signed for Bakun to supply 900mw of power to the plant by 2012. 

And even if the construction of the plant does not take place, he said industries in Sabah and Sarawak will boom to demand a high level of power. 

“There is even talk of selling electricity to Indonesia,” he said. 

Job opportunities will be vast as well, as the project owners emphasise local participation in the dam. “Locals will be able to reap the benefits through employment opportunities,” Tan said. 

A training centre to offer courses for the local people will be set up by the middle of next month with the co-operation of the Construction Industry Development Board, he revealed. Once the trainees complete their programmes, they can be absorbed as workers in the Bakun project. 

MCHJV deputy project manager Jiang Ruijin said the Chinese involvement would enable Malaysians to learn from the Chinese, especially those engineers who were involved in constructing the Three Gorges Dam located along the Yangtze River. 

Due to the complex nature of the Bakun hydroelectric dam project, he said, the Chinese engineers had shared their experiences and expertise.  

If all goes well, China will send about 500 to 1,000 skilled workers and engineers to help supervise the construction of Bakun dam, he said, adding that at present there are 16 Chinese engineers working on site. 

The project owners seem to have done what needed to be done to avoid controversy in the implementation of the project, but they will have to bear in mind that there are still promises to be fulfilled.  

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