Unease at Malaysia's megadam
By Nick Easen
KUCHING. Malaysia - As the dam rises on Sarawak's controversial $2.4 billion Bakun hydro-electric project so does the concern.
In total 11,000 people, most of them from native tribes, are on the move from Malaysia's biggest infrastructure project in a resettlement scheme that they say is a recipe for poverty.
As the first stage of construction pounds the Rajang River under a sea of silt and rubble the displaced communities wonder if or when the promised dam jobs will materialize.
When an area of forestland equal to Singapore is committed to a watery grave the local people hope their new livelihoods will not go the same way.
Compensation for ancestral lands is not enough say villagers.
Many face debts accumulated in the move to small plots, a world away from their previous lives of fishing, hunting and farming.
The government says that when the main civil works contract is started in the first quarter of next year things will change.
A boom in the town of Bakun, they say, will directly benefit villagers and electricity supplied to Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan will bring in earnings and drive the local economy.
Yet opposition by environmentalists is high for the Bakun dam, not only for its huge federal price tag and a potential oversupply of electricity, but its effect on the local ecology and its people.
Such matters have not dampened the enthusiasm of government officials and overseas construction companies currently bidding for the project to be completed by 2005.
A necessary development?
Shelved in 1997 in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, Bakun's 2,400-megawatt facility is a scaled-down version of the original civil works project.
The original dam would have supplied electricity to peninsular Malaysia by an underwater cable.
The government revived the project in February after concerns that reserves in the power industry were falling below 30 percent.
Yet critics say that Malaysia's power utility Tenaga is canceling independent power contracts due to oversupply.
Over the last 10 years Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his government have fought a continual battle with environmentalists and non-governmental organizations, who say the Bakun dam is yet another unnecessary monument to the country's development.
In turn Mahathir has accused the dam's critics of blocking development for their own political agendas.
In the past Malaysia has been host to other controversial massive infrastructure projects with mixed track records.
The multi-billion dollar Kuala Lumpur Airport has yet to live up to expectations as a regional hub.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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