Fact check: are cascading dams better for Sarawak?

With talk of new dams in Sarawak going gangbusters in the media, we have fact-checked some of the claims that are being thrown around. When it comes to cascading dams, like the ones Premier Abang Jo wants to build on the Tutoh/Apoh rivers, they’re pitched as a less harmful alternative to the big, traditional dams, like the Murum and Bakun dams already built in Sarawak. But there’s a bit more to the story. We unpack it here for you:

What are cascading dams, and how do they differ from mega dams?

Cascading dams are a string of dams lined up along a river, and can be smaller than mega-dams, although that is not always the case. The idea here seems pretty smart: by lining up dams one behind another on one tributary or river (instead of large dams distributed all over the river system), these projects are supposedly gentler on the environment, manage water better, and keep the lights on without causing too much fuss for folks living nearby and the natural world around them. Sounds great, right? Not really. 

Even though these dams can be overall less destructive than distributed mega-dams when considering the entire river basin, they still stir up the water in ways that can be very troubling. Cascading dams are still big dams with a big impact: they shuffle around the riverbed, mess with the flow of sediment, and make life harder for fish, animals and people who live alongside these rivers and use them daily. So, even with the best intentions, cascading dams have their own challenges that need a close look, especially when we’re talking about keeping our rivers healthy and our communities happy.

Are cascading dams good for the environment?

Cascading dams still function just like regular distributed mega-dams – they disrupt the natural flow of rivers, create reservoirs that cover land and forest, mess with sediment, reduce oxygen levels, and impede  the routines of migratory fish. They can cause daily fluctuations in water flow, which can be a real problem for fish that need stable conditions to travel and migrate. Overall, these dams can still have a major impact on ecosystems and communities. 

Sarawak’s push for cascading dams on the Tutoh/Apoh rivers is particularly concerning, as they would likely have an impact on Mulu National Park, a UNESCO site. 

In the context of Sarawak, one cause for concern is the lack of transparency in Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIAs). The current processes often leave local communities out of the loop, unable to participate meaningfully or access crucial information. This lack of transparency undermines Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) and casts doubt on the assessments’ thoroughness. Impact assessments regularly take place AFTER the decision to implement a project has been made, which makes them relatively ineffective in mitigating negative impacts. Plus, it’s almost impossible to get copies of impact assessments. So — even though the impact assessment process itself is flawed and questionable — it’s pretty hard to get access to the information in them, which means communities and watchdogs have less information about what’s at stake. There is a desperate need for a more transparent, inclusive approach in Sarawak, one that ensures local communities can influence projects affecting their environment and livelihoods.

Will cascading dams stop human-crocodile conflict?

Premier Abang Jo has repeatedly claimed that building dams in rural settlements will reduce conflict between humans and crocodiles. Malaysiakini quoted the Premier as saying that building cascading dams with waterfalls “will make the rivers less ideal for crocodiles to breed. At the same time, we can allow our fish like semah, tengadak and empurau to breed – people can generate income when we have a lot of fish”.

While it is true that crocodile attacks are a serious concern for some communities, the claim that cascading dams will reduce human-crocodile conflicts lacks evidence. Experts suggest that effective conflict mitigation requires comprehensive wildlife management strategies and education. Infrastructural changes like dam construction are unlikely to reduce encounters with crocs.

Do Indigenous communities want cascading dams?

The Premier was also quoted as saying: “You want crocodiles or electricity, it is up to you to decide. We don’t force people.” But in reality, communities are often forced into projects in Sarawak, and the wishes of people on the ground are often sidelined in the name of development.

When news broke about the new dams, it caught Indigenous communities off guard, to say the least. They’ve been down this road before with dam projects that didn’t pan out as promised, so you can understand their hesitation. The Bakun dam, which was completed in 2010, drowned 700 square kilometers of land, causing irreparable ecological damage. More than 200,000 square kilometers of primary tropical rainforest was lost to the dam reservoir and around 9,000 Indigenous people were displaced, losing their villages and their ancestral land forever. 

Right now, the communities who will be impacted by the newly proposed  dams aren’t just sitting back and letting things happen – they’re rallying for their right to be heard and involved, insisting on Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) before anything moves forward. SAVE Rivers, a local advocacy group, has been on the front lines, gathering a whopping 650 community member signatures in protest of the Tutoh-Apoh cascading dam proposal right out of the gate. Despite reaching out to the Premier for more details, they’ve been met with silence. We will continue to amplify their call for a transparent process where Indigenous voices make the decisions about Indigenous lands.