With folk uprooted for the Bakun and Batang Ai dams yet to benefit from the electricity produced by the projects, one wonders how long the 20,000 people now sacrificing their ancestral land for the Baram dam will get theirs.
I DON’T really relish the thought of seeing another gigantic dam being built after spending the past 15 years watching the Bakun dam develop from start to finish.
It was exactly 15 years ago in August 1996 that the first dynamite hole was drilled into a mountain slope along a bank of Balui River to blast off the construction of three river diversion tunnels through the mountains — the first phase of the Bakun dam project.
I remember the day well. I was in the first batch of media personnel invited by Ekran Bhd (the developer) to visit the site.
Some 30 reporters, photographers and television crew members endured an arduous journey up the Rajang River and through the Balui River to the site earmarked for the 210m main dam wall.
It was a 12-hour boat ride from Sibu via Belaga, Song and Kapit, and we had to shoot up the Pelagus rapids, which at that time was a raging one. In 1996, there was no road from Bintulu to Bakun. The road was completed much later.
I still remember seeing the then Ekran Bhd chairman Tan Sri Ting Pek Khiing smashing a bottle of champagne onto the hillslope after the blasting ceremony, an event witnessed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was then the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
During the ceremony, the VVIPs told the press that the project would deliver electricity to the rakyat and solve all their power woes.
They said the project would light up homes in urban and rural Sarawak and channel electricity via submarine cables across the South China Sea to the peninsula.
That was August 1996.
Since then, I have visited the dam eight times, the last in October last year when the flooding of the reservoir started with the damming of the diversion tunnels.
Today, Bakun has been completed, but sadly, the promise that rural folks would benefit from the electricity has not materialised.
The electricity is only for industries in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE). The project to cable electricity to the peninsula states was shelved due to high costs.
Power transmission lines from the dam run high over dozens of settlements along a 150km route from Bakun to Bintulu.
These settlements will not benefit from the electricity because they are not connected to the state grid. The dam is connected directly to the main grid and there is no power line connecting Bakun to the settlements.
I saw the same situation at the Batang Ai dam in Sri Aman Division in southern Sarawak where the settlements closest to the site were also without electricity supply.
As in Bakun, the transmission lines bypass them.
The electricity is only for the benefit of industrial users, residential estates, commercial centres and offices located hundreds or thousands of km away from the dams.
Those who were uprooted from their ancestral homes to make way for the dams do not benefit from the electricity.
Unfair, isn’t it?
Senior Iban leader Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing agrees that this should not be the case.
In interviews with The Star and a local newspaper, Masing admitted that locals in Bakun, the Sungai Asap resettlement scheme and Belaga district should also enjoy the 24-hour electricity from Bakun.
“These folk still use generator sets to produce a limited amount of electricity,” he said.
As a matter of social justice, Sarawak Energy Bhd and Sarawak Hidro (the Bakun dam manager) should supply electricity from the dam to these local folk whose lives had been affected by its construction.
Masing said he would try to ensure that the electricity be connected to Sungai Asap, where 15,000 relocated from the Bakun area now live.
He said he would also try to ensure that the rest of the 40,000 population now located in the surrounding settlements and Belaga town were also connected to Bakun to enjoy 24-hour power supply at cheaper rates.
This sounds nice, but in reality, it is easier said than done.
The Star has learnt that to draw electricity from the dam and the Sarawak main grid to the settlements from Bakun to Bintulu would cost more than RM60mil.
A lot of infrastructure work has to be put in place before this can happen. So far, no “volunteers” have come forward to offer the money.
When asked on this, Dr Masing admitted that Sarawak Energy and Sarawak Hidro had said that the move would be extremely costly.
“So far, no decision has been made as to whether the electricity from the Bakun dam will be connected to the settlements near Bakun or Belaga town.
“I hope it will be done for the sake of social justice for the Bakun folk,” he stressed.
I sincerely hope that Dr Masing’s wish will become a reality soon.
As it is, the harsh reality is that the Bakun dam, just like the Batang Ai dam, has not benefited the very people whose lives had been uprooted and ancestral land sacrificed for the dams.
The promise of jobs for locals also did not materialise. Even after 15 years, there is still a lot of unemployment in Sungai Asap and the number of jobs at the Bakun dam is limited.
The latest additions of hydro dams in Sarawak will be in Baram district in the interior of Miri division in northern Sarawak.
Three days ago, Baram MP Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan announced the setting up of a government-appointed committee to handle resettlement and compensation issues of more than 20,000 folks from 25 longhouses who will be uprooted for the 1,000MW Baram dam in Long Kesseh, some 200km inland from Miri city.
It looks like there is no turning back — the Baram dam project is on.
Already, an access road to the dam site is being opened up.
The Baram dam will be half the size of the Bakun dam and cost RM7.3bil — about half the cost of the Bakun dam. But in terms of population of natives affected, it will eclipse the mighty Bakun dam.
In Bakun, an original population of about 10,000 were uprooted. In Baram, however, this will happen to at least 20,000 from 25 settlements.
Sagan, also the committee’s chairman, said that efforts would be made to ensure the local Baram folk benefit from the electricity from the dam.
The mistakes made at the Bakun and Batang Ai dams would not be repeated in Baram, he said.
I hope he is right.
By STEPHEN THEN (The Star Sarawak)