Big Hydro Threatens to Wipe Out Little Hydro in Malaysia

Tensions are rising over a large proposed dam that would flood six rural villages—and their microhydro systems—to provide power and water to cities.

Nestled within the rain forest of Malaysian Borneo, a handful of villages are so remote they don't even have roads. They do, however, have electricity.

The villages draw on the nearby Papar River's current to generate enough power to run lights, refrigerators, and phone-chargers for up to 50 households. The systems, dubbed "microhydro," are small-scale versions of the same hydroelectric dams that help power large cities.

Now, however, a controversial proposal to build a bigger dam threatens to wipe out at least six villages with such systems that are either installed or almost complete. The Kaiduan dam would provide drinking water and electricity for urban areas on the west coast.

The government has said it would relocate some 2,000 people whose homes would be flooded in building the Kaiduan, but critics say similar promises made for the Bakun dam to the south went unfulfilled. As part of Kaiduan construction, about (7.5 square miles) 12 square kilometers of land would be intentionally flooded.

"It's getting a bit heated," says Gabriel Wynn, a program manager with Green Empowerment, a nonprofit that helped build the microhydro systems with funding from National Geographic and in partnership with Tonibung, a local group focused on rural electrification.

Villagers have mounted blockades and protests to prevent local officials from completing the environmental and social impact assessment that Kaiduan needs to go forward.

Meanwhile, work continues on three village microhydro systems that will be completed by fall. The systems are built with grant funding, investments, and in-kind contributions from the communities, who operate the equipment and handle payments from power customers.

Aside from generating power for the remote villages, Wynn says, the projects help residents organize toward a common goal: "The community is in the driver's seat."

The area, Ulu Papar, is home to the Crocker Range, which UNESCO named a Biosphere Reserve in 2014, citing endangered species including the orangutan, sun bear, and clouded leopard.

Ulu Papar is "a very healthy and rich rain forest," Wynn says, arguing that as a natural resource, it "would be better left as it is rather than under several hundred feet of water."