Cross currents: Mega-dams and micro-hydro offer two different futures for rural Borneo

Photograph: Kenny Gotlieb

ULU PAPAR VALLEY, Malaysia — A gentle afternoon drizzle provides some relief from the tropical heat as six men from the village of Longkogungan dig a narrow, snaking channel that represents one of their two possible futures.

The canal they’re building will carry water from the village’s new micro-hydropower electrical system, a cooperative effort to manage the area’s resources and retain the local population. “Like birds, they fly, but they return home,” Gosibin Lodukin says of his children and grandchildren, whom he hopes will come back from the nearby big city to Longkogungan.

However, Lodukin and all residents of the Ulu Papar Valley will need to leave their villages if construction of the much larger Kaiduan Dam downstream proceeds and submerges their homes, rice fields and forests.  “No under any circumstance” is the response of Irene Kodoyou, who leads the effort to fight any plan for a dam and resettlement. Kodoyou traces seven generations of her family back in Ulu Papar. She worries that leaving the valley would mean a loss of identity for future generations.

The collective efforts at local control by Ulu Papar residents are competing with urban interests seeking a new water source for the growing population of the nearby Kota Kinabalu area. The outcome will determine the future course of the Papar River and the lives of the people dependent on it.

Alternative futures through infrastructure

As the hornbill flies, Longkogungan is less than 20 miles from the center of Kota Kinabalu, where minarets and modern office buildings dot the sky. The bustling capital city is home to one fifth of the 3.5 million residents of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Despite being close geographically, Longkogungan is still a full day’s journey from Kota Kinabalu via several hours of driving on a winding muddy road and a three-hour hike up the Papar River.

The valley of Ulu Papar, literally “headwaters of the Papar,” supports five villages of the indigenous Kadazandusun ethnic group. Villagers subsist as they have for generations by hunting the local boar, bats, and macaques, fishing the Papar River, collecting wild ferns and vegetables, and growing rice in small fields that are slashed and burned from the thick rainforest.

Gosibin Lodukin, who heads Longkogungan’s village development committee, is on a mission: to coax the village residents who have migrated to the city to return. To do that, he has two infrastructure priorities: extend the muddy road all the way upstream to enable villagers to sell extra meat and produce in the city, and build a micro-hydropower system to generate electricity that will make village life more appealing.

The village of Buayan, downstream of Longkogungan, provides a window into one possible future. Buayan completed construction of its own micro-hydropower system in 2009, an effort led by Sabah-based NGO Tonibung that utilized the labor of nearby villagers. “If you don’t have it, build it. That’s what we’re trying to say to the world,” explained Adrian “Banie” Lasimbang, who founded Tonibung to build electrical infrastructure in rural Malaysian Borneo. Buayan’s 10-kilowatt system can simultaneously power about ten microwave ovens or 1,000 LED light bulbs.

Irene Kodoyou, whose civic duties in Buayan include managing the new electrical system, teaching preschool, and leading the Kaiduan Dam protests, proudly points to the signs of change evident around the village. Many residential roofs have satellite dishes for TVs inside. Villagers keep in close contact with the city through mobile phones. Many houses have refrigerators to preserve food so men spend less time hunting for fresh meat. Some have washing machines, which free up many women’s working hours. Families in the heart of the village might be kept up all night by boisterous neighbors belting out karaoke within earshot. Most important to Kodoyou, her students can study into the evening.

Kodoyou’s commitment to the success of Buayan’s new electrical system couples with her determination to block the proposed dam. The push to install micro-hydropower in the Ulu Papar Valley and, thereby, to increase economic activity is part of a deliberate effort by Tonibung and local villagers to add value upstream of the proposed Kaiduan Dam. Now that Kodoyou has consistent electricity from the micro-hydro system, she calls and emails other villages and supporters outside Ulu Papar about the villagers’ opposition to Kaiduan.

The Sabah Water Department proposes to build the dam to ensure adequate water supply through 2050, averting water shortages predicted to arise in the coming decade. Critics point to other levers to address possible future scarcity: according to the Malaysian National Water Resources Commission, 52 percent of water entering Sabah’s water system in 2016 was lost to “non-revenue sources”: leaky infrastructure or theft. By comparison, as little as 19 percent of water was lost in the Malaysian state of Melaka.

Dam opponents allege that graft at the Sabah Water Department is really behind the Kaiduan plan. The Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission found that the Department systematically awarded infrastructure contracts to family and friends of top leadership, resulting in the October 2016 arrest of the Department’s Director and Assistant Director on corruption charges and the seizure of roughly $25 million in assets.

While he questions the plan for the dam, Tan Sri Bernard Giluk Dompok, former chief minister of Sabah, does not worry about it being tainted by corruption. “If there is not enough water supply, then you still need to go ahead of it. That was a crime that was committed by some people and should not affect the principle of whether you want to have a dam or not.”

The Sabah Water Department and Rural Development Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comments for this article.

Darell Leiking, who represents Ulu Papar and parts of suburban Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian Parliament, accuses the Sabah Water Department of exploiting an urban-rural divide to rally support for the dam. “As much as the government tries to explain it in flowery words, I think all they are trying to do is create a distrust of people in my constituency… saying, ‘you people in the urban constituency have been deprived of your water resources because of this resistance to us building the dam’.”

By her dual efforts to manage the hydropower and fight Kaiduan, Irene Kodoyou demonstrates how the people of Ulu Papar sit at a crossroads of macro-trends in international development funded by organizations like the World Bank.

According to Daniel Kammen of the University of California Berkeley, who studies rural electrification and energy infrastructure, developing countries will continue to accept money for mega-projects if that is all that will be funded. If funders made a more serious effort to weigh the costs and benefits of such projects, there could be “actual dialogue about sustainable options,” he said.

Experiments in self-management

Hydropower is an ideal electricity source for rural communities in this part of Borneo, where hillsides are steep and rainfall is abundant year-round, according to Gabe Wynn of Green Empowerment, a US-based NGO working with Tonibung. Villages getting power for the first time have small electricity demands. Their needs can be met with micro-hydropower systems that function quite differently from the mega-dams that impound water in large reservoirs (like Kaiduan would) to provide power to cities.

Still, successfully implementing a village’s hydropower system can be challenging. In one village in Sabah, a man who sold power from his diesel generator was so angry upon losing his monopoly that he cut the wires connecting the hydropower system to the village, earning the nickname “Saddam.” In Longkogungan, the village leader resented that Tonibung did not work exclusively through him, as previous government development programs had. As he tried to rally opposition to the project, some villagers began to call him “Judas.”

In order to avoid such problems and maintain their new electrical system, Buayan residents elected a committee to manage electricity pricing and infrastructure upkeep, and installed Kodoyou as its head. Initially, the committee billed villagers a flat monthly fee for power. People figured out how to bypass the limits placed on their use. Then, Kodoyou implemented a pre-paid system in which she applies credit to households’ accounts. When households use up their credit, their power automatically goes out, removing the need for personal enforcement.

Kodoyou and the electrical committee are now focused on capacity: Buayan’s micro-hydropower system can’t support all of the evening demand, especially at the peak of the (relatively) dry season, July through September. Yet the system generates excess electricity during the day when villagers work the fields. Finding economically productive uses for this power, such as rice milling, may help the system pay for itself.

The committee has also had to re-plant native trees on land that had been degraded and convince villagers not to clear forest uphill of the village in order to ensure the health of the watershed that feeds the system. While the degraded watershed prevents the system from producing as much power as it was designed for, the village has now has a strong collective incentive to maintain the local forest.

Organizing local resistance in Ulu Papar

Irene Kodoyou became a political activist in 2010 when rumors began to circulate about the possible Kaiduan Dam. Villagers came together from the remote corners of Ulu Papar to elect the Taskforce Against the Kaiduan Dam, which has led boycotts of town hall meetings with the district officer. Distrust has killed all dialogue between villagers and the government ministries in charge of the plans.

Last year, Ulu Papar residents blockaded the one road into the valley, keeping someone on guard around the clock to prevent access by government officials seeking to study the valley. In a culture unaccustomed to political protest, the villagers staffing the blockade draw inspiration from the successful effort to stop dam construction on the Baram River in the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak. Peter Kallang, who founded the SAVE Rivers coalition, explained that local villages organized letter writing campaigns and pressed the national parliament before realizing that they could physically block access to dam surveyors and logging operations.

“We will not move,” Kodoyou said calmly, in defiance of the possibility that Buayan could be underwater or uninhabitable. The story of the villagers displaced from the town of Tampasak by the Babagon Dam, currently the largest water source for Kota Kinabalu, provides a clear example of what Ulu Papar residents want to avoid: ongoing tension with the government and difficulty in adjusting to a new life.

Winnie Joannes believes that she and her neighbors were let down by government promises when they were forced to leave Tampasak. They were resettled in a village with unusable groundwater: residents instead had to build their own gravity-fed domestic water system. Former residents of Tampasak struggled to transition from subsistence to cash-based living. “Due to their irregular income, the residents of Tampasak had to trespass to return to the old village to pick fruits, tap rubber trees, fish, and cultivate the land,” Joannes said. For the last decade, the displaced villagers have used a path they built through the jungle to covertly access parts of their ancestral land that weren’t flooded but remain off-limits as part of the dam facility. “Action by the management of the dam to close the path was unheeded by the community because they have no other way to fill their hungry stomachs,” she explained.

Two potential paths face Ulu Papar: local development or displacement. Bernard Dompok, the former Chief Minister of Sabah, weighs the dilemmas the valley faces, “If we want to keep people in Ulu Papar, then we must be able to give them a livelihood that can be sustained.” On the possibility that villagers will instead be relocated away from the Kaiduan Dam, he said, “There are developments that have to be done in order to achieve development for a country. You will never be able to please the owner of land whose house has to be removed to make way for a road… Any development, there is balancing to ensure that we get the best for the people, planet, profit. That will be the guideline.”

Back in Longkogungan, Gosibin Lodukin, the head of the village development committee, said that the dam may be needed for the survival of the public, but he still hopes for pity from the government. He has no plans for what to do if the dam is built: his focus is on opposition.

Lodukin recalls hunting for frogs in the Papar River at night as a young boy with a wooden torch, before the village even had kerosene lamps. Now he thinks that electricity will make his grandchildren’s occasional visits to Longkogungan comfortable enough to convince them to move there. He hopes that the village will still be inhabitable when they finally decide to make the move.

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