The 944 MW Murum Dam is the first of 10-12 hydropower projects that the Sarawak government plans to build by 2020 in order to attract industrial investment to the state. It is also the first major overseas project for China Three Gorges Corporation, and its performance will help to shape the company’s international reputation. Construction is scheduled to finish in 2013. Like the other planned Sarawak dams, the Murum Dam will displace indigenous communities from their lands and force them to give up their forest-dependent cultures.
The project developer is Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), Sarawak’s state-owned electricity generating company. Dam construction is being supervised by China Three Gorges Corporation and being built by Chinese dam builder Sinohydro. Both Chinese companies have expressed intentions to invest in subsequent hydropower projects in Sarawak, but neither company has expressed an interest in the environmental or social consequences of the project.
Very little is known about the full extent of the Murum Dam’s environmental and social impacts. Construction began in 2008. The project developers did not begin an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) until after construction was already underway. No ESIA has been made available to the public as required by Sarawak law.
The Murum Dam is expected to displace 1,500 indigenous people. Almost all of the people who will be resettled are Penan people, the poorest and most vulnerable indigenous group in Sarawak. Many of the Penan tribes were nomadic until the 1980s and only recently established permanent villages. The tribes still depend heavily on the forests for their livelihoods, and are concerned that they will lose access to forests at their resettlement sites, which are surrounded by the lands of palm oil and timber companies. One villager told International Rivers that “the land allocated to us is equivalent of putting us in a barrel where we can hardly move.”
In September 2012, the affected indigenous communities obtained a leaked copy of the Murum Dam’s resettlement plan. The communities were outraged at the compensation terms that the company planned to provide. Over 200 indigenous people blockaded access to the dam, bringing construction to a halt for over one month.
Since that time, there are indications that SEB has made efforts to improve the quality of the resettlement. Nevertheless, the Sarawak government has forced the communities to negotiate the terms of the resettlement without first disclosing information on how the dam will impact local people and ecosystems, and without providing independent legal and technical support to the communities. In this and other ways, the Murum Dam has resulted in numerous violations of indigenous people’s rights under international law. Yet in May 2013, the International Hydropower Association plans to showcase the Murum Dam as an example of good industry practice when the World Hydropower Congress meets in Sarawak.
- Visit our webpage on the Sarawak Dams
- Sold Down the River: How Sarawak Dam Plans Compromise the Future of Malaysia’s Indigenous Peoples (Bruno Manser Fonds, Nov. 2012)
- Malaysia: What to Do When Indigenous Groups Blockade Your Dam (IR blog, 19 October 2012)
- Malaysia's Murum Dam Sets Poor Precedents for Best Practice (IR blog, 15 August 2012)
- Fooling China's Dam Builders (ChinaDialogue, 6 April 2012)
- Malaysia Human Rights Commission's (SUHAKAM) Investigation of the Murum Dam (2009)