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Malaysia Conservationists Alarmed by New Plans to Dam Rivers on Borneo

Orangutan populations in Indonesia's Borneo and Sumatera island are facing severe threats from habitat loss, illegal logging, fires and poaching. Conservationists predicted that without immediate action, orangutans are likely to be the first great ape to

Malaysia Conservationists Alarmed by New Plans to Dam Rivers on Borneo

Borneo island is home to some of the world's rarest animals and plants. But conservationists are alarmed by new plans to dam some of the rivers on Borneo, which is divided among Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Luke Hunt reports from Kota Kinabalu, on Malaysian Borneo.

The Malaysian government has approved construction of dams in the Kaiduan Valley and near Kota Belud in the state of Sabah. Another dam on the Tutoh River is planned for the neighboring state of Sarawak.

Conflict brews

The government says the dams and perhaps more will be needed to ensure East Malaysian water and electricity needs. However, environmentalists, villagers and a growing number of people in the broader electorate disagree. They want the dams stopped.

S.M. Muthu is a spokesman for the Malaysia Nature Society and says energy supplies - such as biomass fuel, gas and solar - are plentiful in Sabah and Sarawak and should be developed.

He says engineers have examined East Malaysia's infrastructure needs and determined dams are not required to produce electricity given the abundance of fast flowing rivers and natural catchments that are capable of producing electricity.

"The problem is we are destroying the water catchment areas. Then we have a lack of water. Then we want to build dams which is actually trying to find a solution to a problem we keep repeating," Muthu says, "Whereas if you go to the root cause of the problem and we maintain our water catchment areas then you don't even need a dam.

Residents and environmentalists opposition against dam

Residents in the Kaiduan valley have built a blockade to stop preliminary work on the dam. They raised a 1.8-meter Christian cross and the dam location and have also voiced opposition to the dam planned for Kota Belud.

Activists in Sarawak state on the island warn a hydropower dam on the Tutoh River also risks changing the boundary of a national park. That could see its World Heritage status revoked under the regulations of the United Nations cultural body UNESCO.

In addition, Bakun Dam - also in Sarawak - has raised eyebrows. The federal government decided to sell the project, which covers an area the size of Singapore, back to the state government despite intense criticism over environmental damage caused by its construction.

Malaysian Borneo's wildlife threatened

Borneo is home to scores of rare species, including the orangutan, the pygmy elephant and the Borneo rhinoceros. Its wildlife, however, is threatened by development, logging and the expansion of palm oil plantations.

The environmental movement in Malaysian Borneo has grown significantly in recent years. It has managed to block construction of a coal-fired power plant along a pristine stretch of coastline. Environmentalists say the plant threatened the globally recognized Coral Triangle off east Borneo.

Cynthia Ong is the executive director for LEAP Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group that has been at the heart of a coalition of organizations challenging the authorities over their environmental practices. "You know about the coal fired power plant issue. That single issue has mobilized the environment movement in a way I haven't seen before. We hung in there with each other and then made breakthrough after breakthrough after breakthrough and each time when we had successes on our campaign it really empowered us," Ong said.

As momentum within the environmental movement in Sabah spreads among the villagers and urban middle class, environmentalists and government officials in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and beyond are closely monitoring developments here.

"Whether it's coal or whether it's logging it doesn't stop at our borders. It's a line on a map, right. As we work locally there's always this alignment with what's happening in Borneo and what's happening in the region, what's happening globally even," Ong says, "It's not grandiose for us to think that Sabah's a leader and has the potential to be a leader in the region of Southeast Asia."

The Malaysian government says the dams are needed - not only to ensure water supplies - but to guarantee electricity to power the economic growth this country must generate if it is to meet its target of becoming an industrialized nation by 2020.

Managing those economic targets within the constraints of a burgeoning environmental movement could prove difficult, if Borneo's rare and endangered species are to be protected.