Bakun Dam: Hydroelectric, irrigation, and flood control, but at what price?

As defined by the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), a “large dam” is at least 15 m tall or must carry at least 3 million cubic meters of water. The controversial Bakun Dam, located at Balui River, about 200 km from Bintulu town in Sarawak, easily meets these criteria of a large dam.

Bakun Dam nears completion (photo from www.thestar.com.my)

Once completed, Bakun Dam would be 205 m tall, making it the second tallest dam in the world outside China. After nearly 15 years (which included several delays), the Bakun dam is expected to be completed by the end of 2010 with a cost overrun of nearly RM2 billion (about one-quarter more than the initial expected cost).

The Bakun Dam would generate 2,400 MW of electricity. Initially, it was planned that 70% of that generated electricity would be delivered to Peninsular (West) Malaysia and the rest to East Malaysia. However, according to the blog by Dato’ Sri Peter Chin Kah Fui, the Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water, all of Bakun’s generated electricity would remain in Sarawak for the development of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) to make Sarawak a developed state by 2020.

Large dams are a reflection of human vanity. They are icons of a country’s technological advancement, aspirations, and economic and scientific progress. For instance, India’s first Prime Mister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru viewed massive dams like Bhakra Dam in India as a symbol of “the nation’s will to march forward with strength, determination and courage”. Similarly, Egypt’s second President, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, saw the Aswan Dam as Egypt’s modern-day pyramid and a symbol of the nation’s defiance of Western powers.

Silenced rivers: The ecology and politics of large dams

The book “Silenced rivers: The ecology and politics of large dams” by Patrick McCully exposes the myths on the usefulness of large dams. River damming is done primarily for two purposes: 1) to increase the storage of water, such as for irrigation, and 2) to increase the hydraulic head; that is, to raise the difference in height between the reservoir surface and the river downstream. It is this hydraulic head that drives the water turbines to generate electricity. The higher the hydraulic head (or the higher one builds a dam), the more power or electricity one could potentially obtain.

Patrick McCully discusses at length the consequences of river dams, in particular of large dams. Among them are as follows:

  • Dams alter the biodiversity of the river and its surrounding habitat because of changes in the river flow volume and pattern, and water quality (such as water temperature, nutrient content, turbidity, dissolved gases, and concentration of minerals and heavy metals).
  • Dams are often built without a long term study on the impact of river damming on the environment. Additionally, those who carry out the environmental impacts are also not from independent bodies (with nothing to lose or gain if their assessment points to severe detrimental damage to the environment). Instead, those who carry out such environmental assessments are often only engineers with very little training in environmental studies. Consequently, large dams are typically built based on biased and excessively optimistic projections.
  • Cost overruns and long delays often occur in building large dams. Moreover, large dams often fail to deliver the promised amount of power in electricity, even years after dam completion. On average, as estimated by the World Bank, hydroelectric dams only provide about half their potential capability. The High Aswan Dam, for instance, could potentially provide about 18,500 GWh per year, but actual electricity generated was about 40% or 7,200 GWh per year. The Bakun Dam is projected to generate as much as 16,785 GWh per year or 80% of its potential, a figure considered to be unrealistically optimistic.
  • Large dams can cause earthquakes most possibly by the stored water exerting excessive pressure on the micro cracks and fissures in the ground under or near the reservoir. Reservoir operations from more than 70 dams in the world have been linked to earth tremors. In India, for example, five out of nine earthquakes in the 1980s were believed to have been induced by reservoirs. Recently, the Zipingpu Dam in China is believed to have caused the May 12, 2008 earthquake which killed about 80,000 people. Stored water as high as 100 m is sufficient to trigger earthquakes.
  • Large dams cause displacement of a large number of people, often indigenous people with little voice in the political arena. It is estimated that 30 to 60 million people (mostly those in China) have been displaced due to river dams. The Bakun Dam has resulted in the displacement of 15,000 people, mostly from the Kayan and Kenyah ethnic groups. Moreover, human resettlement often cause hardship after resettlement, with many of those displaced unable to find good or permanent jobs or them being unable to continue their agriculture or hunting activities as prior to their resettlement. The Bakun Dam population in the Sungai Asap Resettlement, for example, has dwindled rapidly because the displaced natives are unable to secure jobs after resettlement.

    Bakun Dam resettlers have difficulty obtaining jobs (photo from zulhaidah.com)

    Obviously unhappy over Bakun Dam (photo from borneonization.blogspot.com)

  • In contrast to popular belief, hydroelectric is not a green technology or a source of renewable energy. Although hydroelectric does not involve the burning of fossil fuel (source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas), hydroelectric is instead a source of other greenhouses gases, primarily methane. Methane is about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing global warming. When huge areas of forest are flooded, this water-logged condition increases the emission of methane gas from decaying vegetation. The warm, nutrient-rich, and severely oxygen-depleted water at the bottom of tropical river dams can create conditions for methane-producing bacteria which feed on decaying vegetations. Furthermore, studies from Brazil and Canada estimated that their hydroelectric dams can have an equal or even a larger impact on global warming than electricity generated from conventional coal-powered plants. However, depending on the conditions such as local climate and vegetation as well as the amount of area flooded and amount of water stored, hydroelectric dams may instead contribute to a lesser impact on global warming than coal- or gas-powered plants.

It is a myth that dams are an effective flood control. Although dams can help to minimize the risk of the periodic, normal floods, they can instead become the source for severe and extreme flooding damages. By confining the river to a straighter course, embankments increase the volume and speed of the river, which in turn increase its potential to cause larger damage downstream. Containing the river’s sediment load within its banks raises the river bed, which means embankments must be raised further to compensate for the higher river bed. Eventually, the river level will rise above the height of the surrounding plain, a recipe for a devastating damage of a flash-flood should the huge embankments break. The problem is hydroelectric dams suffer from two conflicting purposes: to generate electricity and to reduce flooding. The water level in hydroelectric dams are intentionally kept high to increase the power for electricity, but by keeping the water level high, this creates a greater risk of flood damage. To reduce flooding events, the water level in reservoir must be kept low, but this act reduces the power for electricity. So if you are a river dam operator, what would you do? The country needs electricity, so you keep the water level high.

Patrick McCully’s book is an excellent book about the myths, science, and consequences of large dams. Though this book was published in 1998 and updated in 2001, its message remains relevant even today.

Patrick McCully, author of Silenced Rivers

The Bakun Dam is a socially and environmentally destructive way to meet Malaysia’s growing energy needs. Greater economic growth and greater push for wealth require increasingly more energy to drive these aspirations. Presently, Malaysia is self-sufficient in energy, but this is expected to end by 2015 (only five years away). After that, Malaysia must import energy and scour her land and seas for further sources of energy. But traditional sources of energy (that is, fossil-based energy) are detrimental to our climate. At the moment, hydroeletric dams contribute 18% of Malaysia’s electricity needs.

Malaysia’s falling self-sufficiency levels in energy (International Energy Agency. 2010. Energy balances in non-OECD countries. 2010 edition. IEA, Paris.)

So if hydroelectric is a dirty word and if we want to divorce ourselves from it, with what could we replace hydroelectric for our electricity? More gas- and coal-powered plants? But those energies are dirty too. Furthermore, natural gas and oil are both running out in Malaysia. What about nuclear energy? Oh, that would be another contentious and much more heated issue than the Bakun Dam controversy. Biofuel? Even if Malaysia’s palm oil biofuel is shown, without a shadow of doubt, to be net carbon zero, there’s not enough of palm oil to be a major supplier of energy for the country. Wind energy? No, Malaysia experiences only low wind speeds. Our best bet for renewable energies are solar and geothermal power, with some contribution from biogas and biofuel (provided they are shown to environmentally friendly). And nuclear power should also not be ruled out.

Issues like Bakun Dam only highlight the energy challenges faced by Malaysia and the world today. Malaysia needs to find alternative and less destructive ways to meet the nation’s energy demands, and we must do our part too by understanding that we need to change our lifestyles to one with a lower carbon footprint.




What’s the point of Malaysian universities? University rankings and commercialization

Update (Sept. 15, 2010): A modified form of this article was published by New Straits Times (NST) newspaper today.

Malaysian universities today are very different from those ten years ago.  Today, greater emphasis is placed on research output, a measurable quantity that supposedly indicates the overall quality of research that is done at a particular university.

Joy at graduation! But what is the actual purpose of a university? (photo from lwcheah.spaces.live.com)

Consequently, university lecturers are pressured to publish as many as papers as possible at a rapid rate. Furthermore, lecturers are seen as successful researchers if they can patent or commercialize their research findings. A lecturer’s quality in research work is measured by the number of papers that has been published and where those papers had been published. So a publication in a prestigious, often Western, journal carries much more weight than that published in, say, a local (or from some backwater country) journal. Recently, there has been some talk to introduce two more indexes: number of citations and the so-called H-index. These two indexes indicate the number of journals a lecturer has published and the number of times the lecturer’s work has been cited (referred) in other researchers’ work.

In other words, there might soon be a “pecking order” where every lecturer would be ranked from no. 1 (top researcher) to the last (worst researcher). I find this worrisome because one of the reasons I became a lecturer and not some salesman is because I hated the ubiquitous use of “salesman ranking” in the sales sector, where every salesman has not only a sales target (quota) to achieve but also to be the top dog. No salesman (or lecturer) would want to see their names at the bottom or near the bottom of the league.

Recently, remarks from Prof Datuk Zakri Abdul Hamid, the science adviser to the Prime Minister, appeared in an article in NST about the irrelevance of university rankings. A Malaysian university, rather than competing with other universities (local and overseas), should aspire to excel in its practical contribution to solving problems in Malaysia and abroad. In other words, a successful university is one that puts theory into practice to solve actual, real problems. Matters such as research output, though important, distracts universities from what is actually needed today.

Academic teaching in universities appears to have been unfairly sidelined and has become a secondary importance (even a distraction) to research.

The primary purpose of a university (be it a Malaysian or foreign university) is to help in the development of intellectuals. The university is the highest level from which knowledge can be taught (or learned). Consequently, a successful university is one that passes down the latest understanding from the knowledge frontier.

More importantly, however, a successful university is one that changes and shapes the thinking of students, from a thinking that is narrow and prejudice to one that is broad and tolerant, from ignorance and aversion to cognizance and appreciation, and from phobia and illiteracy to science to passion and strong proficiency in science. These students, after graduation, are forever altered and in turn, contribute in their own way to the positive development of their country and society. A university can thus be regarded like a mental gym where students enroll to exercise and build their mental muscles, so that after graduation, these students carry with them a stronger, more effective, and more potent mental prowess to solve problems around them.

A country full of intellectuals is a successful and peaceful country, in contrast to one that is cursed with irrational, narrow-minded, intolerant, scientific-illiterate, and ignorant thinking people.

The development of intellectuals has been the core purpose of universities in the past, but somehow this noble purpose has been diluted since then. Today, universities are seen instead by the public as “pre-job training workshop”. Universities are supposed to train these people so that they can “hit the ground running” on the first day of their respective jobs. Yes, I agree that universities should provide the necessary training for students for their career interest, but this training is done as part of the students’ intellectual development rather than solely for their future jobs.

Imagine this following scenario: A student has been trained for civil engineering at a university but later decides to be an entrepreneur, opening a restaurant instead. With our current perception of universities, this engineer-turn-entrepreneur is said to have wasted his or her time and money at the university, studying for something not used to earn a living income.

So if you are a member of the public, you see a successful university is one that produces top-notch, ready-to-go job workers, and if you are a member of a university, you see a successful university is one that produces lots of research papers, and patents and commercializes research findings. Both views are correct but not entirely comprehensive, as they miss the fundamental purpose of a university; that is, the development of intellectuals for the good of the society and nation.




Facebook, pillow, and sanitary pad are not the most important invention in history

I stumbled across a survey by “Youth Says…” from NST (New Straits Times) that asks the question from Malaysian youths, aged 15 to 25: What is the most important invention in history?


Youth Says... (from www.nst.com)

This is certainly a contentious issue that would bring in varied answers, but what caught my eye was the answers from some youths. Some answered Facebook, sanitary pad, and even, pillow! If this survey is any representative of our Malaysian youth, then I am worried. It suggests that one-third of our youths are idiots. Strong word, yes, but I get extremely irritated with imbeciles.

Mercifully, some youths answered something much more intelligent such as penicillin (a better answer would be “antibiotics” but I won’t split hairs), internet, and telephone as the greatest ever invention. Though these items are extremely important, I don’t rank them as the most important. Nonetheless, at least, they are intelligent and worthy candidates for the greatest invention in history.

For me, the greatest invention is writing. This is because writing allows storage of knowledge and its wide dissemination. Writing forms the basis of other inventions, and without writing, knowledge would be transient.

I think I know why answers like Facebook, sanitary pad and pillow irritate me so much because it supports what I witness at our local universities. Many of our university students are immature. Not only are they often ignorant of current affairs, but they are also indifferent to them. Consequently, asking them thought-provoking, profound questions like What is the most important invention in history? only begets shocking answers.

Malaysian youths, really, grow up.




Why only one child? RM1.1 million to raise a child in Malaysia

Updated (Aug 18, 2013): This article was used as a source of reference by New Sunday Times for their cover story, “Too expensive to have children”, pg. 12-13. I was also interviewed by the NST journalist, Tan Choe Choe.

Updated (May 7, 2011): Local radio station, BFM 89.9, carried a podcast story about this blog entry on Aug. 7, 2010. You can also download/listen the recording here (MP3, 2.76 Mb)

It started in 1896 with a study entitled “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children” by Granville Stanley Hall who claimed that children who have no siblings (only-child) as oddballs or permanent misfits. Hall went as far as to claim that “being an only child is a disease in itself.”

Time magazine, July 19, 2010 (photo from www.time.com)

Time magazine, July 19, 2010 (photo from www.time.com)

Describing an only-child as a “disease” is appalling and irresponsible. But is it true that only children are “overprivileged, asocial, royally autonomous … self-centered, aloof and overly intellectual,” as written by sociologist Judith Blake in her 1989 book, Family Size and Achievement?

This is the question tackled by Time magazine in their July 19, 2010 issue (vol. 176, No. 3). I read this issue with great interest because my wife (Jennifer) and I have one child too. Before we got married, I told my wife that I would like to have two children, and wife three. However, after our first child, Zachary, was born a year after our marriage, there appears an unspoken agreement between us that no more children are “in the pipeline”. In other words, we decided to shut up shop.

Our only child, Zachary Teh, aged 3

Why? Firstly, I am forty this year, and by the time Zachary goes to university, I would be sixty, probably retired and doing god-knows-what at home. Secondly, Jennifer and I are busy with our respective work and have just enough quality time with Zachary as it now stands.

The third reason has to do with how Jennifer and I see the purpose or point of our marriage. Before we got married, we agreed that our marriage should be a partnership for mutual happiness, fulfillment, security, and support, rather than treating our marriage as an opportunity to maximize our child production rate within our fertile years. In other words, the success of our marriage isn’t tied to the number of children we have, but how well my wife and I fulfill and support one another throughout our lives together. Having children (be it one or more) is a part of our lives together in marriage, rather than the point of our marriage. I think this perspective to one’s marriage is important.

At work, I have several colleagues (who are either hardwired or culturally wired to breed like rabbits) who expressed shock that I should have only one child. One has even told me that my son would feel lonely without siblings. This is a common misconception. There are many cases where siblings (even after they have grown up to be adults) who do not feel close to one another, or end up hating or fighting one another over some issues, petty or otherwise.

I can speak from experience that I never felt close to my sister even when we were growing up as kids. Today, as forty-something adults, my relationship with her is, at best, limited to a single one-minute and awkward phone call a year.

So, back to the question: Are only children misfits? In the Time magazine issue, it reports several studies done in the US that showed that there were no measurable differences in personality between only children and those who have siblings. There was, however, one important difference found between these two groups of children. Only children tend to do better in intelligence tests and achievement than non only children! In other words, there is no truth that only children are lonely, selfish, and maladjusted. Instead, only children tend to be smarter.

But why do they tend to be smarter? As Time magazine points out, there is no “dilution of resources” for only children, meaning that parents get to concentrate more attention and resources on their single child, rather than “diluting” or sharing the attention, time, money, and energy among two or more children. Time magazine ends the article by listing several famous personalities who are only children. These personalities are such as Franklin Roosevelt (former US President), Cary Grant (actor), John Updike (book author), Condoleezza Rice (former US Secretary), Frank Sinatra (singer and actor), and Lance Armstrong (seven-time Tour de France champion).

There is a fourth reason why my wife and I have only one child. It has to do with cost of raising a child from birth right until completing the tertiary education. We have all heard how expensive it is do raise a child today, but surprisingly, finding exactly how much that is in Malaysia is difficult. A search over the Internet revealed no figures for Malaysia, so I had to do some detective work myself, using figures from other countries. In Singapore, for example, the cost of raising a child is between RM400,000 to RM1.6 million, with two-thirds of the cost covering tertiary education. It is amazing to learn that two-thirds of the child’s expense (from birth until university graduation) is concentrated only on the last four years during which the child is at the university.

In US and Australia, the cost of raising a child (excluding tertiary education) were estimated at RM890,000 and RM1.1 million, respectively.

Think again… (photo from www.momlogic.com)

So, what about the cost of raising a child in Malaysia? Rather than working out the nitty gritty details involved in child expense, I chose a shortcut. A child’s tertiary education often bears the bulk of the total cost. In Singapore, for instance, tertiary education is, as mentioned earlier, two-thirds of the total cost of raising a child there.

Using the website, Meshio.com, I determined the cost of a four-year tertiary education in several countries (including Malaysia), then assumed that figure (education and living cost) is two-thirds of the total cost of raising a child here in Malaysia. Note that Meshio.com calculates the tuition fees as well as the living cost of doing a tertiary education, and their calculations include the mean annual increase in tuition fees per year.

The following are the cost of raising a child I calculated for a child born in 2007 (like my son who was born in April 2007):

If you want your child to study at a university in Total cost of raising a child (from birth to university)
Malaysia RM 472,491
Australia RM 1,079,215
Canada RM 900,594
Japan RM 2,054,061
New Zealand RM 993,861
USA RM 1,075,606
UK RM 1,249,091

Hence, if you are planning to send your child for an overseas education, you have to be a millionaire, as it takes an average total of RM 1.1 million to raise a child, born in 2007, in Malaysia. This average of RM 1.1 million excludes Japan, the most expensive country for overseas education. Any plans to study there would set you back a whooping RM 2.1 million, double that for other overseas countries.

Alternatively, you get a huge discount by nearly 60% if you send your child for a local education. The cost of raising a child in Malaysia for a local university education is the cheapest at about RM 473,000. But you pay a “hidden” price for a local education route: lower quality of education. As a lecturer at a local university here, I wish I could tell you that our local university education system is on par with those in US, Europe, or Japan. But the truth is it isn’t. I studied in the UK for my Ph.D., and the difference between their education system and ours is as different as night and day.

RM1.1 million to raise a child in Malaysia. This figure is certainly a sobering pause to those who are contemplating many children. But as for my wife and I, our only child, Zachary, is all we need. In him, lies all our hopes and fears.

Mom, look! Ice cream van!