For an extra 8% energy, is it worth it?

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Pak Din

Dhu al-Qa'dah 12, 1416 1996-04-01

South-East Asia

by Pak Din (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 25, No. 2, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1416)

THE controversial Bakun Hydro-Electric Project has come under severe criticism from public-interest groups, including CAP and SAM, but the Govt is bent on implementing it. These groups have raised important and pertinent questions on the need for, viability and safety of, this mega-project but the authorities have not responded adequately to the issues raised by them. There has been no careful and serious consideration of the objections to the project. On the other hand, the Govt and the main contractor, Ekran Bhd, have recently launched an expensive public relations campaign to convince the public on the soundness of this multi-billion ringgit project.

The manner in which the decision was taken by the Federal Cabinet to implement this mega-project, and to award it to Ekran, raises serious questions on the link between Big Business and Government, public participation in the Govt decision-making process, government accountability, and the conflict between the private economic interests of political leaders and their public duty and responsibility. More fundamentally, the decision to implement this project, regardless of its devastating ecological consequences, reveals the level of Westernisation and secularisation of the thinking and values of our leaders and their economic and scientific advisors.

Although the Bakun dam project would have serious economic, social and ecological consequences, there has been no public input into the Govt’s decision to embark on this expensive and ambitious venture. On 8 Sept 1993, the Federal Cabinet announced that it had approved this mega-project and awarded it to Ekran, a company owned by Tan Sri Ting Pek Khiing who has close links with some of our top political leaders. Until then, no information on the project had been disclosed that would have enabled the public to discuss and comment on the pros and cons of implementing it.

The Govt claims that over the last 20 years, 26 feasibility studies have been carried out relating to technical, economic and environmental aspects of the project which show that it is viable and safe. The Govt has failed to explain why it did not disclose the results of these studies to the public for it to comment and make suggestions. It is also difficult to understand why, if the studies had shown that the project was viable and safe, our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamed, announced in June 1990 that the project had been cancelled as part of Malaysia’s contribution to global conservation. Hardly three years later, the Govt has made a U-turn in its policy and decided to approve the project. The Govt has yet to explain the reason for its U-turn.

Giving the public-interest groups an opportunity to comment on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of distinct sections of the project after awarding the contract to Ekran to implement it is of no value. Given the magnitude of this project and the serious effects it would have on our economy and ecology, the Federal Cabinet, before approving it, should have given theŠ public an opportunity to study and make representations on it. There should have been public discussion on the economic benefits and the social and environmental impacts flowing from the implementation of such a mega-project. In the best tradition of a democratic society, the matter should have been debated in Parliament before the Executive made its decision to approve it. However sound the arguments of the public-interest groups against implementing the project, can anyone seriously believe that the Govt would cancel it after Ekran had spent millions of ringgit on preliminary work? Thus, the right to comment on the EIAs is without any substance and absolutely useless.

Big Business Influence

The Bakun issue highlights the enormous influence exercised by Big Business on the Govt in developing and implementing mega-projects without any public discussion on their merits. Public-interest groups had forcefully argued, with facts and figures, against implementing the Bakun dam project but Big Business disagreed and it is their voice that was heard in the corridors of power.

Using figures issued by Tenaga Nasional Berhad, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that there will be excess of supply of electricity in the future, even without the projected supply from the Bakun dam. Also, given the vast distance involved in transmitting the energy from Sarawak to West Malaysia and the ensuing losses, it is agreed that the consumer will have to pay a high cost for the electricity consumed, at least for the first 20 years after the dam comes into operation. Despite these powerful arguments against the project, Big Business and the Govt continue to sing the same old song that "the Bakun project must go on to ensure ample supply of electricity for the nation by the turn of the century.

The cost of implementing the project is estimated to be RM15 billion but the problem of raising the capital to finance it has yet to be resolved. A joint venture company, Bakun Hydro-Electric Corporation Sdn Bhd, led by Ekran has been set up to undertake the project. The company is expected to be listed on the stock exchange so that it can raise, at least, part of the capital in the capital market. Since there is backing by the Govt for the project, the Employees Provident Fund would, probably, be investing a sizeable portion of the workers’ savings in the company. Since Ekran has no experience in building hydro-electric projects and no capital to undertake such an expensive venture-with so many attendant risks, why was the project awarded to it? The Govt must explain.

Environmental consequences

The Bakun project, it is generally agreed, will have a serious impact on the ecology of that area. It would result in the destruction of eco-systems located in an area of more than 70,000 hectares, that is, the size of Singapore. Some 50 million cubic meters of vegetation will have to be removed. Rivers will beŠ silted. There would be climatic changes in the area and also diseases in the wetland habitats. Nearly 10,000 indigenous people would be displaced and their culture, tradition and way of life destroyed.

These eco-systems have evolved over millions of years and contain a wide variety of animals, birds, insects, plants, vegetation and water-sources, all inter-linked and existing in harmony. They probably contain vast quantities of genetic and biological resources which could be of great use to the future generations. Therefore, it is sheer madness to sacrifice this unique and rich natural heritage, which has taken such a long time to evolve, at the altar of commerce and profits. The Bakun project, when it is operational in the year 2003, would generate 2,400 megawatts of electricity, which would constitute only about 8% of the total primary energy supply by the year 2020. The life-span of the dam, it has been estimated, would not exceed 50 years. In the short term, Tan Sri Ting, the shareholders of Ekran, as well as their political patrons will reap huge profits. But, the 1088 to the future generations is inestimable and they would have to bear the cost of this great human folly.

The Bakun project is eloquent testimony of the mental enslavement of our political elite and their advisors by the Western ideology of development based on the desacralisation of nature, its conquest and subjugation to satisfy the unlimited greed for money, profits and wealth of a small group of men. Modern man has forgotten the organic link that exists between God, man and nature. Man, armed with his Godless modern science and technology, has become arrogant and self-centred and looks upon nature and all other creations as objects to be exploited in his interest.

There will be many more Bakuns in the future resulting in the permanent destruction of the eco-systems in our natural environment unless our elite-- politicians, planners, scientists and engineers--undergo a reeducation, rejecting the Western secular attitude to nature as a hostile object to be conquered and exploited andŠ adopting our traditional teachings which consider man as the custodian of nature and not its destroyer.

Courtesy: Utusan Konsumer, Penang, Malaysia.

Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996

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