Megadams are so last year

(and we couldn’t be more pleased)

A fisherman shows us his catch in Sarawak

Last February, the residents of a small town in California’s Gold Country were told a 30 ft wall of water was headed their way. The men and women of Oroville ran through the streets in panic, and almost 200,000 people were evacuated from the area. These were not extras in a Deep Impact reboot, they were running from a structural failure in America’s tallest dam.

As the world watched on with bated breath, the emergency spillway eased pressure, and the uncontrolled release of Oroville’s reservoir didn’t eventuate. The residents and properties of the town were saved, and California was slapped with a near $1 billion repair bill.

Similarly in November, phones started buzzing in villages downstream from Borneo’s Bengoh dam, with photos of a leak in the dam’s 200 ft high wall. There is no emergency response plan in place for the area. The rumours were quickly quashed by official statements, and stories reporting the leak were swiftly swept from the web.

In a very different part of the world than California, and with just as imminent danger, the official response was a dismissal, and a shrug. It is a sad fact that in most of the world, the environmental, social and safety concerns of megadams are ignored.

At The Borneo Project, we’ve been working with communities fighting these projects in Sarawak for a long time. This month we celebrate the International Day of Action for Rivers, as well as marking two years since we beat the Baram dam (which would have been the second largest megadam of its kind in Asia) alongside our grassroots partners.

For decades, our allies around the world have been calling out these projects as corrupt, environmentally destructive and socially devastating. Oroville was an important wake up call that the international media couldn’t ignore. Throughout 2017, domestically and internationally, we keenly watched on as megadams (finally) start to go out of fashion.

Repeat after me: mega-hydro is not clean or renewable energy

The global environmental impacts of massive dams are well documented. Worldwide, decomposing organic material at the bottom of reservoirs pump out approximately a billion tonnes of greenhouse gas a year.

Giant dams contribute as much to global carbon emissions as the aviation industry. Where we work, megadams have drowned hundreds of miles of rainforest in one of the world’s most vital carbon sinks.

On a local level, megadams transform the biological, chemical and physical properties of rivers and their surrounding environments. Dams destroy waterways, so communities that previously relied on rivers for pretty much everything (food, work, transport, cleaning, drinking, cooling off) are often forced to get their water from plastic bottles.

Biodiversity pays a huge price wherever megadams are built. The creatures who rely on these rivers for clean food and water have to go elsewhere, get sick, or die of starvation.

The WhatsApp message that did the rounds in Bengoh (Photo courtesy Sarawak Report)

Megadams are about as welcome as a hole in a lifeboat

From the Mekong delta to the Amazon basin, hundreds of indigenous communities have lost their livelihoods and been kicked off their land because of megadams. Estimates say 80 million people have been displaced by dams worldwide – or – about the population of Germany.

Dams have drowned villages, ruins, crops, ancestral fruit groves, hunting routes, cemeteries, you name it.

Needless to say, these communities are not impressed. Megadams and the inevitable involuntary displacement that follows also have effects on indigenous communities that are difficult for us to understand as smartphone-tapping city dwellers: they render extinct familial narratives that are bound with the soil, and entwined with rivers and land. These are no less real than the environmental impacts.

And here’s the kicker: they don’t even make money

Even if none of this tugs at your heartstrings, consider that the economic benefits of megadams are unclear. While looking into the viability of the Baram dam in 2015, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley found no evidence of economic benefit.

Instead, they found that Sarawak’s 12 scheduled dams would be a net drag on the economy, and generate energy far in excess of projected needs. There would be no future market for them.

Research from the University of Oxford has shown that megadams blow out their budgets during construction and lose a tonne of money, not just in Sarawak but around the world as well.

But – never fear – the megadams in Sarawak are not totally pointless: they would make a few rich men much, much richer in the short term. Namely, the fabulously corrupt former Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, whose family has holdings in the companies that received contracts for the dams’ construction.

All the cool kids are jumping ship

Because of (and perhaps in spite of) the evidence that economists and scientists have been spouting for years, in late 2017 we saw a mutiny of megadam projects around the world.

In November, Pakistan’s Bhasha dam project was indefinitely shelved. The epic $8 billion dam would have flooded the villages and farms of over 35,000 people – destroying a bunch of priceless rock carvings to boot. The official line is that Pakistan withdrew from the project due to the Chinese developers’ strict financing conditions.

One day later, Nepal announced it was (at least temporarily) cancelling the controversial Budhi Gandaki dam, which if it went ahead would displace 45,000 Gorkha and Dhading people, with no alternatives being offered for their resettlement and rehabilitation. The Gandaki river also runs along the western border of Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the last remaining populations of single-horned Indian rhinos. This is not a water system to be trifled with.

It was also very welcome news when Myanmar soon after announced it is no longer interested in giant dam projects. This comes after years of ill-fated Chinese and Indian backed projects, most notably the Myitsone dam: the plans for which broke a 17 year ceasefire with the Kachin resistance, resurrecting a conflict that has displaced more than 100,000 people.

And then in a surprise government statement in January, the era of mega-dams in the Amazon basin came to an apparent end. After decades of hydro-expansion, the Executive Director of the Ministry of Mines and Energy Paulo Pedrosa told the media that the government could no longer stomach megadam battles against indigenous communities.

But not Malaysia!

Despite the fact that few of these projects were cancelled for the right reasons, this International Day of Action for Rivers, we’re still doing a small, cautious happy dance on behalf of all the unsung heroes who have been fighting these projects on the ground for years, and are starting to win.

While the cancellation of the Baram Dam in Sarawak was a monumental victory for the environment, indigenous rights and for rational thinking everywhere, megadams remain a huge problem in Sarawak.

Communities that were displaced by the Bakun and Murum dams still lack basic necessities, and are struggling with the aftermath. The Sarawak government is soon to break ground on the Baleh Dam, and has announced plans for the Trusan dam to go ahead in the early 2020s.

So while the global trend is away from these rather nasty and corrupt projects, Sarawak is still leaning in. It’s going to take continued pressure from and support for environmental activists in Sarawak, and their allies around the world, to put an end to these policies. While we can say that megadams started to go out of fashion in 2017, we can’t wait for the day we can say they’re history.

Fiona McAlpine is the Communications Manager for The Borneo Project. Find out more about real clean energy alternatives for Sarawak here. You can watch our mega-dam film series here.