Sarawak’s cascading dam plan hits first hurdle

Desmond Davidson

Communities along the Tutoh River express their sentiments about the proposed cascading dams. – Save Rivers pic, January 16, 2024.

SARAWAK Premier Abang Johari Openg’s assertion that indigenous ethnic communities along the three rivers, where the proposed cascading dam would be built, had given him the “green light” to proceed with the project has been disputed by both an environmental conservation group and a PKR senator.

Save Rivers, which successfully placed the proposed Baram hydroelectric dam under a moratorium in 2015, alleges that communities residing along Sungai Gaat, Sungai Tutoh, and Sungai Belaga – potentially affected by the project – are “in the dark” about it. It has initiated a petition drive urging the premier to disclose details of the state’s plan.

As of now, the Miri-based civil society organisation advocating for indigenous people and environmental rights reported that they have collected 500 signatures, said the managing director of Save Rivers Celine Lim.

“We are not against development,” Ding Laing, a native of Long Panai, one of the villages along the Tutoh River, said.

“However, our concern arises when development projects are introduced without first approaching or informing the affected communities. Suddenly reading about it in the papers makes us very concerned.”

“Residents of Long Panai had written to the Premier’s Office in November of last year, seeking more information and engagement. Unfortunately, they have not received any response,” he said.

Lim added that obtaining information on development plans and land issues from state agencies and departments has consistently been a challenge for the people in Baram.

In their letter, the residents requested access to feasibility studies for the proposed cascading dam sites and research highlighting the effectiveness of dam constructions as a means of crocodile population control.

“We also have not received any response,” she added.

“While it is vital to transition to renewable energy, this energy transition must be just and that includes upholding the free, prior and informed consent rights of the indigenous people.”

Lim said Save Rivers is also concerned about the impact the project has on the Mulu National Park – a Unesco world heritage site.

The Tutoh River, one of the three rivers, flows into the national park.

Willie Kajan, one of the state’s foremost indigenous rights defenders, said because the communities are in the dark about the project, it is the reason they are seeking a dialogue with the government and other relevant authorities.

“Consultations must be done before any development plans affecting our ancestral home and only then we can be well informed enough to collectively give our consent or not,” Kajan said.

He mentioned that the 500 signatures collected so far clearly express the sentiments of the grassroots and the affected community regarding the proposed plan for the Tutoh and Apoh cascading dam

The petition is expected to be handed over to the Premier’s office at the end of the month.

Similarly, PKR senator Abun Sui Anyit has also disputed Abang Johari’s claim that the communities along the three rivers had given him the “green light” to go ahead with the project.

Abun, who is also PKR’s Hulu Rajang branch chief, said as far as he is concerned, “no local community or individual within the local community has claimed to have given this green light”.

He said that the people in the Belaga district now want to know from Abang Johari which “local community” gave him the “green light”.

“The people of the Belaga do not oppose progress, but a comprehensive engagement is necessary, especially with the affected communities.

“We believe the people of Belaga do not want history to repeat itself,” he said alluding to the promises made in connection with the construction of the mammoth Bakun and Murum hydroelectric dams.

Both dams were constructed in Belaga – the 2,400MW Bakun Dam, which became operational in 2011, was built on the Balui River, and the 944MW dam was constructed on the river that bears its name.”

Abun said the voices of those affected by these dams are still being heard today.

He was referring to the demand of the promises which are not yet fulfilled. – January 16, 2024.

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