INFRASTRUCTURE, DAMS AND WATER IN MALAYSIA

INFRASTRUCTURE

Malaysia has very modern transportation and telecommunications infrastructures, but their quality and availability vary geographically. It suffers from urban sprawl and traffic congestion in its capital Kuala Lumpur, and a lack of basic services in rural areas. In much of the country, mountainous terrain has limited transportation infrastructure development, and sufficient government funding to overcome such constraints only began to materialize in the 1980s.

Infrastructure projects have included billion dollar dams, a new capital, a new $3.5 billion airport, huge bridges and 10,000 miles of roads. In the early 2000s, Malaysia launched one of the world's largest land reclamation project to reclaim 79,072 hectare of land from sea off the coast of northern Kedah at a cost of $12 billion. After the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, the government canceled plans for regional airports and highways.

Sanitation facility access: improved: urban: 96 percent of population; rural: 95 percent of population; total: 96 percent of population. Unimproved: urban: 4 percent of population; rural: 5 percent of population; total: 4 percent of population (2010 est.). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

In the 1990s Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir approved plans for a new $3.6 billion international airport, a new rapid transit system for Kuala Lumpur, improved ports, a $400 sports facility for the 1998 Commonwealth Games, a huge new dam and even a new capital city. Describing what the meaning 452-foot-high Petronas Twin Towers, the highest building in the world for a while, Mahatir told Newsweek; "This represents the level of achievement we have reached. It's not just that you want to do something.

Many Malaysian do not share Mahathir' vision and believe the money would be better spent on improving Malaysia’s schools, upgrading research facilities, providing better technical training. In the early 2000s, Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi put several major infrastructure projects initiated during Mahathir's 22 year-rule on hold, among them a new bridge linking Malaysia and Singapore. In late 2003, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi canceled one Mahathir‘s most cherished pet projects: the $3.8 billion cross-Malaysia railroad project, Malaysia’s largest infrastructure program. The contract to build it had been award to a Mahathir crony.

Other skeptics argue that Malaysia doesn't need the ambitious development projects. The Petronas twin Towers had trouble finding tenants and many say the new $8 billion administrative capital of Putrajaya (45 miles south of Kuala Lumpur) was unnecessary.

The new airport was proposed in 1992 and construction began two years later. This contrast with the new in Bangkok which was first proposed in 1967 and was in the planning stages in the 1990s.

World's Tallest Building and New Capital, See Putrajaya and Petronas Towers Under Place

$34 Billion Development Project in Terengganu

Some expensive infrastructure projects seemed to be launched more out of political concerns than need, In October 2007, Malaysia kicked off an ambitious bid to transform its ethnic Malay heartland into an agriculture, energy and tourism powerhouse by pouring in US$34 billion by 2020. Reuters reported: “Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi launched Malaysia's third development corridor as his government tries to position the country for future growth ahead of national elections in 2008. 'We expect to create more than new 560,000 jobs in the corridor over the next 12 years,' Mr Abdullah said. [Source: Reuters, October 29, 2007]

Agriculture and tourism are key focus areas, with nearly half the funds earmarked to strengthen transport links and infrastructure in some of the poorest states, home to nearly 4 million people in Malaysia's north-east. Mr Abdullah was speaking in Kuala Terengganu in Terengganu state, where Islamist have a strong presence.

Neighbouring Kelantan is the last remaining stronghold of the Islamist opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia, which wants to turn the country into an Islamic state that punishes thieves by chopping off their hands. Malaysia will woo foreign investors to participate in the plan, which expects to raise a fifth of the needed US$34 billion from the private sector, another 27 percent from public-private initiatives, and the rest from government, planners have said.

Terengganu is Malaysia's largest crude oil producer, with state energy firm Petronas and Exxon Mobil being the biggest operators in the state. Petronas, charged with chalking out the plan, has said it also intends to invest in the region. 'We will be investing in the oil and gas like we have been doing all this while,' Chief Executive Hassan Marican said last month. Energy services firms are likely to benefit from a slew of potential projects in the so-called East Coast Economic Region. They include Petronas Gas, Dailog Group , KMN Group, Kencana Petroleum, MMC Corp and Muhibbah Engineering. The Ecer Abdullah launched on Monday sprawls over 51 percent of the Malaysian peninsula, through the northeastern states of Kelantan, Terengannu and Pahang to Mersing in southern Johor.

He said the plan would involve upgrading of airports, roads, ports and telecommunications facilities. It will also expand a gas and petrochemical hub and set up a zone for plastic makers. He also announced plans to set up a major international Internet exchange in Terengganu to serve Southeast Asia. Education is also targeted in the plan, while the property sector will get a boost from moves to ease development of land that cannot now be sold to non-Malays. Nearly half the land not owned by the government in the eastern development region is in this category, state news agency Bernama said.

Water in Malaysia

Water is a constant source of friction between Singapore and Malaysia. Malaysia has tons while Singapore doesn’t have much as is dependent of Malaysia for its supplies. See Singapore

Total renewable water resources: 580 cu kilometers (2011): Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 11.2 cu km/yr (35 percent/43 percent/22 percent) per capita: 414 cu m/yr (2005). Irrigated land: 3,800 sq kilometers (2009). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Drinking water source: improved: urban: 100 percent of population; rural: 99 percent of population; total: 100 percent of population; unimproved: urban: 0 percent of population rural: 1 percent of population; total: 0 percent of population (2010 est.)

El Nino brings drought to Malaysia and Indonesia and elsewhere in the western Pacific. A severe drought in the late 1990s caused by El Nino depleted water reserves and left 2 million people without a regular water supply for months. Residents in some places were forced to ration water and middle-class families collected water like the poor and carried buckets to their homes.

Bakun Hydroelectric Project

The Bakun Dam in Sungai Asap in Sarawak, Borneo is one of the world's largest hydroelectric projects. When completed, the $8 billion hydroelectric project will create a $2.3 billion, 205-meter-high dam (the largest dam in Southeast Asia), a reservoir the size of Singapore, and produce 2,400 megawatts of electricity—as much as the Aswan dam in Egypt.

The amount of power produced by the dam far exceeds the need of the two Malaysian states in Borneo. The original proposal called for a massive 670-kilometer undersea cable to be built to carry power from the dam to peninsular Malaysia. When completed the cable will be the largest of its kind ever made. In 1999, the plan for the cable was dropped. Now the government says the population increases and development on Borneo over the coming decades will use up the energy. Maybe some electricity might be sold to Indonesia or Brunei.

Work began on the Bakun Dam project in April, 1995 and finished in 2011. About $2.3 billion had been spent on the project. After the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, plans for the Bakun dam were put on hold. The government reneged on a $3 billion deal with the Swiss company, ABB Asea Brown Boveri AG, that was making he generators. French and German companies may take over the job.

Relocated Native People and Other Problems with Bakun Hydroelectric Project

It is estimated that 69,000 hectares of rain forest —an area about 1½ times the size of Singapore—and at least 15 major villages will be submerged by the reservoir. Environmentalist and native rights groups say that the dam and reservoir will destroy the habitat for 100 endangered species and threaten a culture already under stress from widespread logging. Critics of this project say that the 670-kilometer electric cable that is supposed to take the energy from to mainland may not work and the money would be spent building energy plant that burn the country's abundant supply of natural gas.

About 10,000 tribal people—mostly Iban—living along the Balui River and on mountain slopes submerged by the reservoir have been relocated to new homes. The people who have been relocated like their new houses but don’t like the location. One woman told AP, “There is no river here. Finding food is difficult. There is no hunting ground, no fishing.” Relocation began in 1998. Their new homes are built to resemble their old ones. They were told they would have pay $13,500 for each new home with some compensation given for their old homes.

Many claim the houses are too expensive and the compensation has either been late in coming or too little to meet their needs. They also complain that the running water and schools promised them have not materialized and the 1.2 plots of land given them for farming didn’t produce enough food. Even those who received compensation found the money ran out quickly and the only source of income open to them was to work on a palm oil plantations for $2.60 a day.

Their new location forced them into a consumer society in which they have to buy food instead of producing it themselves. With their normal activities such as hunting and raising traditional crops taken away from them they have become idle. Alcohol and drug abuse have become more common. One official with the resettlement project told New Strait Times their complaints are unwarranted. “They are just being lazy, because there are jobs everywhere at the plantations.” Some of the Iban have discussed leaving their homes and resettling in the forest but logging and plantation agriculture has left them with few places to go.

Native Villagers Lose Land Rights Suit over Bakun Dam Construction

In September 2011, Malaysia's Federal Court, the highest judicial authority in the country, delivered a unanimous ruling against members of an indigenous tribe who had challenged Sarawak State's seizure of land to build the massive Bakun Dam. The three-judge panel dismissed the villagers' appeal. The tribe members had argued that the Sarawak authorities violated the tribe's constitutional rights by seizing land, occupied by tribal ancestors for generations, to construct the dam. The legal battle reportedly dates back to 1997, when the Sarawak government first began to take over the land. The land seizure was made possible because "[m]any indigenous tribes in Sarawak and elsewhere in Malaysia do not formally own land … where they live, grow crops and hunt," one of the judges said. [Source: Library of Congress, September 12, 2011]

The grounds for dismissal of the appeal adduced by two of the judges, who chose not to address the question of whether the seizure was unconstitutional, were largely technical. They concluded that the issues had not been "raised or properly canvassed before the court." They contended that the plaintiffs should go to arbitration if they are dissatisfied with the amount of compensation they had received for the land; it was not for the court to decide such matters. The third judge, however, gave as his ground for dismissal of the appeal that the state acquisition of the land was constitutional.

According to a spokesperson of the nongovernment organization Friends of the Earth Malaysia, the Court's ruling "left uncertainty over the status of over about 100 other land rights lawsuits filed by other indigenous Malaysians in Sarawak." While officials argue that the dam is needed to meet the rising demand for power, environmentalists have reportedly widely criticized it from the start because of its displacement of thousands of people and flooding of at least a 260-square-mile area. In the view of rights activists, moreover, "while numerous villagers forced out by the Bakun Dam had received monetary compensation, it was not a fair amount for the size and value of the land." (Id.) The Socialist Party of Malaysia viewed the decision as a failure on the part of the judges to uphold the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Groups Protest Sarawak Dams

Jeremy Hance of mongabay.com wrote: Over 300 people from local indigenous people protested the ongoing construction of around a dozen mega-dams in the state that threaten to flood traditional lands, force villages to move, and upend lives in the state. The Sarawak hydropower plans are some of the most controversial in the world. To date, environmental impact assessments of the dams have not been published publicly. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, May 22, 2013]

Sarawak is currently planning around a dozen dams to be built over the next decade, although the Malaysian state already produces more power than it uses. Controversial dams include the planned 900-megawatt Murum Dam, which will flood 24,500 hectares of indigenous lands and force the resettlement of seven communities. Construction of the dam was blockaded by Penan people in 2012. Meanwhile, the planned 1,200-megawatt Baram dam will flood 40,000 hectares of primary rainforest and is expected to displace 20,000 people.

Sarawak already produces far more energy than the state uses leading critics to allege that numerous massive dam projects are merely means for corrupt officials to siphon off state funds and collect bribes. "We know the government plans on building a dam in the Baram area. Our ancestral lands will be flooded, and we will lose our land and livelihoods," Johannes from Long San, Baram said. "We have learned from Bakun and Murum dams. The government only think about to make money with the dams but they don’t care about us. We want development but not dams." Sarawak's Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud has been under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for alleged timber corruption since 2011. According to the Bruno Manser Fund, Taib is worth $15 billion; the group contends that the Prime Minister has used corruption to enrich himself and his family for decades.

Blockade of Sarawak Dam Project by Native Penan

In 2012, over 300 Penan attempted to blockade roads to the Murum dam construction site in Sarawak.Jeremy Hance of mongabay.com wrote: “Indigenous people have expanded their blockade against the Murum dam, taking over an additional road to prevent construction materials from reaching the dam site. Beginning in September with 200 Penan people, the blockade has boomed to well over 300. Groups now occupy not just the main route to the dam site, but an alternative route that the dam's contractor, the China-located Three Gorges Project Corporation, had begun to use. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, October 8, 2012]

"The major works on the construction of the dam have been paralyzed over the last one week. The drivers have left home and let their cement tankers, lorry trucks and trailers with building materials had been hauled over and park at the road side near the blockade site," the Sarawak Conservation Alliance for Natural Environment (SCANE) said in an update on the blockade. "The access to the construction site of Murum hydroelectric dam project is totally blocked on all directions with the setting-up of second road blockade by the Penans."

The Penan are protesting what they say has been disdainful treatment from the government-owned corporation overseeing the 900 megawatt dam project, Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB). The dams construction, which will inundate 24,500 hectares of native land, will lead to the involuntary resettlement of seven indigneous communities, who still remain in the dark about many of the details of the resettlement plan. In addition, the tribe alleges that SEB has been intentionally destroying important sacred and historical sites. "We will not remove the blockade or move out of here until our demands are resolved and fulfilled by the government," Labang Paneh, a representative from Long Wat village, said in a statement.

Families, including elderly and children, have set up makeshift camps near the blockade and appear to be in it for the long haul. A government minister spent two days with the Penan investigating the blockade and speaking with them about their grievances. "I went in and I saw the situation from the view of these Penans whose lives are being uprooted and whose future looks so uncertain," Liwan Lagang, Sarawak Assistant Minister for Culture and Heritage, told The Star. "I found out that indeed, they had not been properly consulted and their concerns not addressed by those handling the construction of the project."

Children Injured and Killed After a Malaysian Bridge Collapses

In October 2009, News Agencies reported: “A suspension bridge in Perak state in northern Malaysia has collapsed, killing at least one child. Another 19 fell into the river but were rescued; two more are missing and a search by rescue services continues. A further 20 who were on the bridge managed to avoid falling into the water by clinging onto the structure. The state news agency Bernama reported that the 50-metre bridge had only been completed two weeks ago, replacing another bridge which had collapsed. The chief Minister of Perak state Zambry Abdul Kadir said the bridge's support beams had fallen late on Monday evening and authorities were investigating whether it had been built to proper specifications. [Source: News Agencies October 27, 2009]

One student, K Mathivanan, aged 12, told Bernama that the bridge at Kuala Dipang, Kampar, suddenly collapsed after some children jumped on it. "Suddenly we were thrown into the river, but I managed to hold on to a rope," the pupil said. "The currents were strong but I pulled my body up." The children were part of a group of nearly 300 from 60 primary schools in Kampar, Tronoh and Batu Gajah in Perak state, who were camping in a village 200km (120 miles) north of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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