Sarawak government’s hydropower plans worry Indigenous communities

  • Indigenous residents begin submitting petitions as Sarawak officials announce three new cascading hydropower dams throughout the state.
  • While Sarawak’s chief minister appears all-in for the dam in comments, other officials say plans hang on the results of upcoming feasibility studies.
  • After some villages were devastated by older dams, Indigenous residents ask officials to consult them fully or simply drop the plans.

As Sarawak’s top officials plan three new hydropower dams, seemingly eager to export more electricity, some Indigenous residents of the Malaysian Bornean state are urging officials to slow down development to properly inform everyone who will be affected.

Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg has been hinting at plans to build new dams since the end of last year, but he confirmed this month that the state plans to construct three more hydropower dams. The dams would be built in Kapit district’s Gaat River, Belaga district’s Belaga River and Baram district’s Tutoh River.

Abang Johari gave several reasons for promoting new hydropower, ranging from the expected — more power for the province — to more unconventional, notably saying that residents now use roads instead of rivers, implying they would not be negatively affected by dams, that residents asked for the dams and that cascading dams would prevent crocodile populations from increasing.

Following the announcement, more than 500 residents around the Tutoh dam site signed a petition led by the Miri-based NGO SAVE Rivers, calling for more information about the cascading dam project and an assessment of potential environmental impacts.

SAVE Rivers’ managing director Celine Lim said in a press release that residents of the Baram area are frequently left in the dark about major development projects, and are not properly consulted to determine potential impacts.

“The suggestion that communities no longer use the rivers is particularly alarming and demonstrates that policy makers are out of step with reality. 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 (FPIC) rights of the Indigenous People,” she said in the press release.

According to news reports, the dams will be built by private companies and run by the state utility Sarawak Energy Berhad. Sarawak Energy’s four dams not only provide power to most of the state — with around 61% of the state’s energy coming from large-scale hydropower, according to their 2021 annual report, the most recent available — the company is also exporting power to Indonesia’s West Kalimantan, with plans to provide electricity to Malaysia’s Sabah state as well as neighboring Brunei and Singapore. In December 2023, the state utility signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned energy company, known as Masdar, which included plans to develop 1 gigawatt of renewable energy projects in Sarawak.

Sarawak Energy didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mulu communities expressed their resistance to the proposed Tutoh/Apoh cascading dam citing what they describe as lack of full community consultation and project disclosure.
Mulu communities expressed their resistance to the proposed Tutoh/Apoh cascading dam, citing what they describe as lack of full community consultation and project disclosure. Image courtesy of SAVE Rivers.

A call for consultation

Willie Kajan, an activist and Tering Indigenous elder, said it’s common that Sarawak officials start making development plans without consulting the communities impacted, adding that officials should know by now that residents want to know ahead of time what will happen to their forests and rivers.

Kajan said water currents have changed dramatically due to existing hydropower dams in the area, affecting residents’ ability to farm fish and shrimp, and that longhouses along the river have experienced dramatic flooding. Sarawak already has five hydropower dams across the state’s rivers. According to Sarawak Energy’s 2021 annual report, the company produced 30,163 GWh.

Kajan said he also worried about how the Tutoh dam could affect Mulu National Park, as the river runs along the southern border of the protected area.

“We always complain a lot and they know our complaints,” he said. “They should come and make a proper investigation or EIA [environmental impact assessment] implementation, into whether [the dam] will be high-risk for people in the area. … They should consult to us but they don’t ever try.”

The petition prompted responses from several government officials, some trying to quell the Indigenous communities’ fears: Gerawat Gala, deputy minister of the labor immigration and project monitoring department, said the dams wouldn’t be completed until officials conducted a feasibility study with positive results, adding that people were overreacting before the projects were finalized. Meanwhile Liwan Lagang, the state assemblyman representing Belaga district, said that he was “very confident” that the state government would inform residents of his district before any plans were finalized. Neither official responded to requests for comment.

The petitioners responded through SAVE Rivers that they did not believe these claims, as the chief minister had already made it sound like the projects were confirmed.

Sarawak’s Indigenous residents have faced major challenges due to hydropower development throughout the state. Researchers have raised issue with the impact of the dams on river quality and water movement. And in the process of construction, residents are often displaced and segregated from their livelihoods: After observing conditions at the Murum dam resettlement communities in 2014, the Malaysian Bar Council described the situation as “deplorable,” with more than 350 Penan and Kenyah families left “desolate,” without proper housing or a way to sustain their lives.

Communities along the Tutoh river expressed their resistance to the proposed Tutoh/Apoh cascading dam citing what they describe as lack of full community consultation and project disclosure.
Communities along the Tutoh River expressed their resistance to the proposed Tutoh/Apoh cascading dam, citing what they describe as lack of full community consultation and project disclosure. Image courtesy of SAVE Rivers.

Between 2012 and 2015, residents in Upper Baram petitioned, protested and camped in a blockade in opposition to a government plan to dam the Baram River. By November 2015, then-Chief Minister Adenan Satem shelved the dam, which it had originally planned to construct by 2030, and returned the land to residents, but some worry the government may revive the plan someday.

Kajan, the activist, dismissed some of the chief minister’s excuses for building new cascading dams, which ranged from increased energy demand to a rowdy population of crocodiles.

“They [Sarawak officials] are only trying to lobby the investors,” he said. “What they want is money from overseas, and the foreign investors [do] not know anything” about what is happening in Sarawak, he said.

Banner image: Members of communities in Baram and Mulu with the petition. Image courtesy of SAVE Rivers.

Malaysian logger Samling’s track record leaves Indigenous Sarawak questioning its plans

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.