Sunday, April 26, 2009

Damn those dams

In Greek mythology, there was a Titan called Prometheus, the brother to the more famous Atlas. Good olde Prometheus was a cunning bloke who fortunately for us, loved and championed human-kind. To cut the myth short, he stole fire from the almighty Zeus to give it to men.

It was mankind's greatest gift (or discovery).

Zeus was pissed off and punished Prometheus for his ‘crime’ by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus, the region where Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia are.

Zeus ensured that each day a huge eagle ripped into his liver - oUCh! The liver would, by Zeus will, grow back again, so that it would be eaten again the following day - perpetual torture until he was rescued by Heracles (or if you like the Romanised name, Hercules) hundreds of years later.

The myth showed Prometheus as playing a pivotal role in the early history of humankind. Providing fire to men was probably the principal one.

Fire, as we know, is a good servant but a bad master. It’s an old English saying which means that fire is very useful when it is under one's control, but very dangerous when it is not.

Likewise with nuclear power! But somehow the word ‘nuclear’ strikes terror in many people’s hearts, and some greenies have exploited that fear by stressing only on its bad points while conveniently disregarding its usefulness.

Elizabeth Wong once wrote an article in Malaysiakini describing all the adverse factors of Malaysia adopting the use of nuclear power. At that time I didn’t have the opportunity to rebut some of her points because I was caught up with some far more demanding issues.

Also, I was then reminded that leaving control of nuclear power development in the hands of our corrupt and incompetent bureaucratic wonders might not be a good idea, thus I wasn’t motivated to write on my support of nuclear power as a better solution to our energy needs than hydro-electrical systems.

But I am alarmed by today’s Malaysiakini - Bakun to supply power to peninsula via undersea cable!

A few major countries like the USA have already removed, and some are also contemplating doing the same with their hydro-electrical systems.

While the advantages of a hydro-electric scheme may be attractive the disadvantages aren’t so immediately apparent.

For a start, a hydroelectric system like the one being developed at Bakun will dislocate large numbers of people as had been the humongous case for the Chinese 3-Gorges Dam across the mighty Yangtze River, which was developed with 3 objectives: to produce clean electricity, prevent China’s perennial deadly floods downstream and enhance navigation for boats.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about the enhanced navigation brought about by the 3-Gorges Dam:

The freight capacity of the river increased 6 times and the cost of shipping reduced by 25%, compared to previous years, which reduces carbon dioxide emission by 630,000 tonnes. Comparing to highway transportation, the amount of fuel that Three Gorges Dam project saved between the year of 2004 and 2007 is equivalent to 4,100,000 tonnes of standard coal. Thus it reduces carbon dioxide emission by 10 million tonnes.

OK, so there’s some greenie benefit.

But 1.24 million Chinese had to be relocated. An added issue for China's relocation plan was corruption, where officials pocketed the government funds allocated for compensation of 13,000 farmers relocated. Not unlike some cases in Malaysia, the money mysteriously disappeared after it was sent to the local government. The farmers have yet to be compensated.

But the far more significant issue is that, a large dam like Bakun will flood a very large area upstream, and adversely muck up, if not destroy the ecological system both upstream and downstream. The aqua ecosystems, birdlife, and other mammals will be seriously affected.

My uncles would constantly lament the building of the Ayer Itam Dam, which has screwed up the Ayer Itam river ecosystem. Worse, under the BN State government, some tributaries to the river have disappeared in the 90's.

One which was particular loved by my mateys and me was (once) a bubbling cool crystal clear brook which cascaded underneath the Bukit Bendera funicular rail track before becoming a stream flowing through Hye Keat Estate and then meandering by the Zoo Road mosque to join the main Ayer Itam river.

I was told that a ‘factory’ (of what? but would have to be one approved by the State) has siphoned off the waters of the entire brook upstream of the funicular rail track. The Hye Keat Estate stream is no more.

As a toddler, I was taken there by my uncles to catch all sorts of fish in the Hye Keat river, which we Ayer Itam locals would called:

- ‘aw tiam’ (black spot – a sort of barb about the size of our palm with a noticeable black spot around its dorsal fin - could it be ikan bagoh or menderu?),

- ‘peh teeo’ (white something – ‘teeo’ means ‘to fish’ but I don’t think it’s this meaning - but could it be 'teeow' which means 'strip' or a unit description for a fish, as in 'se-ekor'?),

- ‘ikan teen’ (carp),

- th’or sart’ (catfish),

- ‘layhoo’ (I am ashamed to say I can’t recall both the Malay and English name for this ubiquitous fish which can be caught in most Malaysian streams, rivers, and mostly in the padi fields – it has sweet flesh and Chinese use it in rice porridge – it’s a very hardy fish which won’t flop over and die when one leaves it out of water, and can remain quite alive for hours in a fishmonger's basket). Afternote: thanks to Xiean, the fish is snakehead fish (channidae) or ikan haruan.

Uncle told me they are all gone from the river and streams (what stream? they are now only huge dry drains) around the Ayer Itam village, save perhaps for some 'ikan teen' at the spot near the foot of the Dam (around the mosque astride the stream).

Future generations of Penangites will lose knowledge and the pleasure of being acquainted with our flora and fauna heritage because of the Ayer Itam Dam.

The Dam should have been required to release a minimum quantity of water to ensure the flora and fauna dependent on the river flow were not endangered. But I doubt this is likely to happen in the future.

So to end this post, I would like to remind Malaysians that fire may well be a bad master but is a damn good servant, otherwise Prometheus wouldn't have been prepared to suffer hundreds and hundreds of agony to bestow on us the wonderful gift of fire, essentially the gift of life.


  1. The story of Prometheus is also about elitism and giving choice to the masses.

    What's interesting about the undersesa cable for Bakun is that it alone was originally costed at about $8 billion in '97.

    Today's headlines mentions nothing about cost or the fact that they do not have a tested proto-type they can use as a model or for base costing.

    There was also a recent announcement that with the contributions from highway robber and extortionate IPP's, Tenaga now has reserve capacity of about 50% which is the highest in the world!

    So, the supply of 10,000 kw to mainland M'sia is a red herring. Who needs it, baby?

  2. Great to see Kaytee championing an environmental cause!

    written on your blog, It would likely draw attention from people who normally wouldn't care to read environmental related stuff.

    way to go!

  3. "Also, I was then reminded that leaving control of nuclear power development in the hands of our corrupt and incompetent bureaucratic wonders might not be a good idea"

    This, I cannot agree.

    Did you know, our oil refineries have among the lowest rates of plant fires in the world? Our safety record is much better than the Americans, incompetency and corruption or not.

    Did you know that in Bintulu we have the largest LNG facility in the world in a single location? It has been running smoothly for the last 25 years or so, when a single explosion could literally flatten the whole of Bintulu.

    Ironically, again, incompetence or corruption or not, the neighbour of that LNG plant is Shell's GTL plant (pretty sure Shell isn't a Malaysian company) which blew up in the 80s.

  4. Kaytee

    Besides building a dam to store water for the hydro electric project , it also serves as a storage for fresh water which is getting scarce . Fresh water will be the next commodity in the future .

    Happen to know that area very well .

    But sad to say those idiots trying to tear down a heritage of Penang .


    If you want to do something for Penang why don't you write something on this . I'm dead against this project .

    Its in regards to the Penang Hill Railway . Guess I might be organising some protests when the time comes .

    See the links below :

    a)Penang Hill Railway: How it came to be ,
    b)End of the track for funicular railway ;
    c)Keep funicular railway, says retired engineer ;

  5. large scale hydroelectric by using dam does NOT guarantee low CO2 emission.

    When forest sunk under water, the organic decomposition will create much more CO2. NO DAM in the world can continue to run more than 70 years, due to sediments.

    In fact, technology advancement has REDUCE the energy consumption dramatically. Due to monopoly, alternate power such solar, fail to pick up in the country. Wind power is no where to see even we have many windy state that are poor.

  6. You know, there's always still shit power. I mean, renewable energy by biomass means, and too bad political rhetoric doesn't count. ;)

  7. Moo,

    I could not say it better myself. The Hoover Dam in the US and the Aswan High Dam are just two examples. They are now no more than tourist attractions. A series of lakes will do a better job at flood control by diverting water away from the river so that when the river does crest its impact is minimized. Lakes also provide local communities a source of fresh water saving on piping cost. The whole idea being to spread the excess water over a large area.

  8. Eh? How come Kaytee is into environmental causes? Is he trying to mend his broken friendship with Antares?

    Rest assured, there is no greater environmentalist than Kaytee's hero: Small Lim, the CM of Penang. He is trying to re-introduce tigers into Penang! Let us not forget that tigers once freely roamed on Pulau Pinang and Seberang Perai, long before UMNO was formed. I wonder: will Small Lim transport elephants, tapirs and wild boar into the island too?? As for the Unladen Swallow's suggestion of shit power, I'm sure it can be found in Small Lim's mind as well (although some say that it is already displayed in Mamak Zambry's hold on power in Perak)!

    Whatever it is, Small Lim is at least more environmentally savvy than the great Mamak a/l Kutty, who introduced hippopotami into the Putra Jaya wetlands! Goodness gracious me! Apart from Telekom Malaysia's fantastic BlueHyppo, when were hippos -- real ones -- ever in Malaysia? Anyway, it was said that when the old man was very slowly losing his memory towards the end of his long pharoanic reign as Prime Minister of Malaysia, he began entertaining fantasies that Malaysia was actually Zimbabwe: hence the appearance of the hippos at Putra Jaya!

    Swine Fever Virus