Saturday, January 16

Discard perceptions mega dams the only solution — Expert

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KUCHING: The perception that the state’s development will be facilitated with the construction of mega hydroelectric dams ought to be discarded as it is no longer relevant.

Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) director Prof Dr Daniel M Kammen said that was the thought some 20 years ago, but it was no longer practised around the world now.

“Now we are seeing solar, wind, biomass (being the choices electricity generation). They are faster to install and cheaper,” he told a press conference here yesterday.

Kammen said instead of relying on mega dams that created resettlement problems and destroyed biodiversity, the state government should use a better electricity generation system that includes green energy generation based on solar, wind, biomass and micro hydro systems.

“Smart investors from Europe, China and the US are now looking for ‘green projects’ to invest in.”

Besides that, he said based on analysis conducted, even if the proposed mega dams worked well, the energy generation would probably not benefit the local communities, besides facing other issues such as resettlement and huge damage done to the forests.

“So, it doesn’t make sense to think about these big projects if what you really want to do is community energy.”

Kammen said the state could fully utilised excellent sources such as solar, biomass, micro-hydro, adding there was so much waste from sawmills that could be used to generate biomass.

He added that large dams, though they looked cheap in the beginning, but the delays, problems such as damage from earthquakes, could end up to be more costly in the long run.

“This is part of the finding with all these hidden cost. Once you find out, you will realise maybe dams might not be the best idea.”

Kammen also quoted a recent report from Oxford University that found that on average, large dams in the tropics cost two times more than what they were originally budgeted, and the life span of these dams was often a decade shorter than planned.

Apart from losing the biodiversity, he said the construction of dams could cost the people’s health because they could not hunt and do the things that they did before.

When asked whether Baram dam could induce earthquakes, Kammen said: “Even if I am not a geologist, I’m a physicist. So we know of dams around the world, not just the biggest that have definitely cost earthquakes.

“I’m not predicting. I’m just saying it’s not surprise that you suddenly put the water weight, so I’m not surprised by it.”

Meanwhile, Green Empowerment Borneo Programme manager Gabriel Wynn, who was also present, said the organisation’s very first project in Malaysia was providing micro-hydroelectricity in Long Lawen in Belaga.

“In Long Lawen, because the micro hydro systems depended on the health of the watersheds in order to maintain their efficiency and structural integrity overtime, the community has actually gone to great lengths to protect their watershed area.

“Whenever there is any threat of illegal logging or state sponsored logging entering this area, the community will push them out.”

Gabriel said the organisation found there was actually a willingness by the local communities to pay for the services provided through energy, adding that the organisation financed many of the systems partially through grants and partially through loans, which the community paid back overtime with the integration of prepaid meters.

“When you compare this cost with the cost of diesel, we are talking about households who are paying about RM50 to RM300 a month for diesel. When we do the cost for hydro, you’re talking about RM20 to RM30 a month, which they are able to use slowly to pay back their loans.

“If we look at community-owned rice mills and sawmills and looking at these kind of businesses that can be supported by a stronger clean energy infrastructure, I think that we are in a really good place to begin creating an alternative economic argument for the long term kind of green development for Sarawak.”

Gabriel said many countries had started decommissioning their dams and this actually showed something that the state could learn.

“You’re looking at some of the more developed countries taking them (dams) out, and we are looking at developing dams now.

“Where do you think Sarawak will be 20 years from now? Maybe they might be looking at decommissioning the dams as well.”

While the old idea was that large dams were a good economic investment, he said that was not what the people were seeing on the ground.