Small Is Beautiful: The People Matter


IN our distorted democracy, many will inevitably question why an opposition legislative member would agree with the ruling executive on an administrative decision.

Sure, there is plenty for any opposition lawmaker to say and write to criticise the ruling government in this all gloom and doom “Fractured Nation” these days.

But hey, it is Sunday. Rather than mounting on the people’s miseries, I am determined to show there is hope, at least in our fairland Sarawak, if we can work together for the betterment of our State and our people.

So, excuse me for saying the only bright spark of “Malaysia Day” 916 this year was the televised interview of our Chief Minister by the state-owned TV3 and do further excuse me for praising CM for announcing his moratorium on Baram Dam in the interview.

Towards the end of the quite exciting interview, the CM was asked about the 12 mega dams.

He candidly replied: “I have shelved ‘Baram’ for now. Now we have Batang Ai, Bakun, Murum. At this juncture, it is enough. We are now determining our future needs of electric power, so we shelved (tangguh) Baram.”

From speaking in Bahasa Malaysia throughout the interview, he turned to English, evidently to emphasise his point: “Stop. Moratorium of it.”

While he was on the topic of the mega dams, he gave these other answers: “Upon all the factors for consideration, environment is one of them” and “Why not we try alternative sources like solar power, and mini hydro. Don’t just look at mega dams. It is not wrong looking at smaller ones.”

I am convinced the well-read CM has in his library, the collection of essays by economist  EF Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A study of Economics as if people mattered.

Small is Beautiful is ranked amongst the 100 most influential books published since World War II by the Times Literary Supplement. Schumacher argues that the modern economy is unsustainable. Natural resources are capital and not expendable income since they are not renewable, and thus subject to eventual depletion.

He further argues that nature’s resistance to pollution is limited as well. He concludes that government effort must be concentrated on sustainable development.

Schumacher’s philosophy is one of “enoughness”, appreciating both human needs, limitations and appropriate use of technology.

He faults conventional economic thinking for failing to consider the most appropriate scale for an activity, blasts notions that “growth is good,” and that “bigger is better,” and questions the appropriateness of using mass production in developing countries, promoting instead “production by the masses.”

Schumacher was one of the first economists to question the appropriateness of using gross national product to measure human well-being, emphasising that “the aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption.”

In the epilogue, he emphasises the need for the “philosophy of materialism” to take second place to ideals such as justice, harmony, beauty and health. (I can’t do better than to copy and paste the adept synopsis of Wikipedia here).

That speaks a lot about the distinction between a clever CEO and his wise superior.

Announcing a moratorium on the proposed Baram Dam, speaking amiably about alternative energy sources and mini hydro, the Q&A session has reminded me of the visiting research group from the University of California, Berkeley who has recently produces three in-depth studies on SCORE.

The Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), led by Professor Daniel M Kammen, is world renowned for their work in renewable energy technologies and solutions.

They have worked in North America, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere in Asia.

In our neighboring state of Sabah, RAEL developed attractive and affordable alternative proposals to a controversial coal plant, suggesting instead the implementation of biogasification of palm oil waste amongst other solutions. Their study has influenced the policy discussions in Sabah.

The team under Professor Kammen has now explored the potentials of clean energy solutions for Sarawak with very interesting results: they find that SCORE is exceedingly overbuilt, very expensive and has irreversible impacts on our precious environment.

The Berkeley analysis compares four different energy demand scenarios. The annual power growth rate of 16 per cent under SCORE is an extreme outlier. If you compare it to the 4 per cent maximum growth rate under the projections based on government statistics and forecasts, the SCORE scenario appears highly unrealistic.

The study concludes if the Bakun Dam, the Murum Dam and the Baram Dam are built, there is a large excess of energy. Even under an aggressive (and unrealistic) energy demand growth rate of 10 per cent, SCORE is unnecessary.

While SCORE does, indeed, have low fuel cost, the annual build cost and associated fixed costs are high because the system is extremely overbuilt.

Similarly, a study from the University of Oxford from last year, found that large dams are not economical.

Analyzing a sample of 245 large dams worldwide, the study finds that on average the actual costs of large dams are 96 per cent  higher than the original estimates. (Ansar, A. et al., 2014, “Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development,“ in: Energy Policy, University of Oxford).

A closer look at the Bakun Dam confirms these findings: The Bakun Dam was meant to cost RM2.5 billion. While the official expenditure figures have risen to RM7.4 billion, two scientists from the National University of Singapore calculate the total cost of the Bakun Dam to be RM15.325 billion.

This equals a cost overrun of 200 to 500 per cent! (Benjamin K Sovacool and LC Bulan, 2011, “Settling the SCORE: The implications for the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) in Malaysia”, Lee Kuan Yew Schoool of Public Policy, Energy Governance Case Study No. 4, March 2011).

The Berkeley studies also show the extent to which the environment is affected by the SCORE dam series. They looked into the potential impact of the Bakun Dam, the Murum Dam as well as the proposed Baram Dam on biodiversity: At least 69 per cent of Bornean mammals and 57 per cent of Bornean birds would be negatively affected by these three dams as well as two-thirds of all tree species with four tree species to be extinct.

In terms of individual organisms affected, 3.4 million birds, 110 million mammals, and a minimum of 900 million trees would be lost.

Professor Kammen indicates a direction for an alternative energy path with less financial risks and impacts on our environment. Energy sources such as solar or biomass become cost effective under government incentive schemes such as a Feed-in Tariff.

In this mechanism, Sarawak Energy would provide renewable energy power producers a fee above the retail rate of electricity, based on the cost of generation of each technology. The goal is to further renewable energy. Feed-in Tariffs have already been implemented in states across peninsular Malaysia and Sabah.

As the CM himself has pointed out, the most ironic about mega-dams in Sarawak are the impacts on the affected villages that remain without connection to the power grid.

Neither the Batang Ai Dam, nor the Bakun Dam, nor the Murum Dam have led to rural electrification. Villagers are still dependent on diesel generators and often pay twice as much as urban households.

The Berkeley team evaluated small-scale energy options for the Baram Area. They found that in all of the villages they visited, the least cost option comes from a mixture of locally managed micro-hydro turbines and small-scale biogasification in combination with batteries.

We have seen mini or micro-hydro electric projects being successfully implemented in Sarawak. The Kenyah Badeng community of Long Lawen, being part of the Long Geng community but refused to be resettled to Sungai Asap from the Bakun dam project, moved to higher ground of Sungai Tekulang.

With the help of NGOs, the community had commissioned a 8kW hydro-turbine and a micro-grid network in 2002. This micro-grid is still functional today. There are many more successful NGO initiated or supported micro-hydro projects in Bengoh, Betong and Ba Kelalan areas.

With CM’s enthusiasm, I am hopeful that his office has followed up with Professor Kammen and his RAEL team on their formal proposal offering themselves to support Sarawak in developing an alternative energy path.

I am also hopeful that the CM will soon made an order that the gazette notification to extinguish all NCR over the now-shelved Baram Dam be revoked and or withdrawn, that the more than 10,000 folks will no longer need to fear losing their home, their land, their livelihood and lives.

We must be hopeful that the CM’s administration is for sustainable development, for the well-being of our folks, particularly those dwelling in the rural settlements.

The people matter.