Snowy Mountains Engineering Corps (SMEC), the engineering firm tasked with completing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the NSW Government project to raise Warragamba Dam wall, has today been revealed for having numerous question marks over its relationships with First Nation’s people on previous dam projects. It has called into question how the firm was chosen as the lead consultant in the Warragamba dam project by the NSW Government.
The controversial Warragamba Dam Draft Aboriginal Draft Cultural Heritage Assessment that SMEC has written and plans to submit to the NSW Government is another in a long line of controversial dam assessments that they have been involved with.
In 2013 SMEC faced extensive criticism from the scientific community for their involvement in the Don Sahong Dam project in Laos. SMEC refused the Cambodian, Vietnamese and Thai governments calls on them to submit the project and the proposal to intergovernmental assessment. The construction of the Don Sahong Dam project is set to threaten the main source of livelihood, fishing, for those living downstream of the dam in the Cambodian-Mekong. This has further driven poverty and environmental degradation in an area where this is already rife. SMEC did not consult the parties involved in the Mekong River Commission, as required under the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
Harry Burkitt, Campaign Director at GIVE A DAM said: “SMEC clearly have a track-record in destroying culture and traditional livelihoods. Just as we see with the Warragamba Dam wall project, SMEC have had no respect for international obligations, and passed up multiple opportunities to consult with Indigenous people who will be affected by the dam project.”
In 2015 SMEC Engineering faced further controversy for undertaking an Environmental Impact Assessment and a Social Impact Assessment for the Mong Ton (or Tasang) Dam in Myanmar, which will eventually displace as many as 300,000 people Indigenous to these areas - with over 100 villages and towns to be flooded. This dam has also threatened the existence of 104 migratory species of fish which are crucial to the livelihoods of groups living along the Salween River.
The Mong Ton Dam was proposed amid serious human rights abuses throughout Myanmar, especially within the ethnic/Indigenous states of the country where Mong Ton was planned to be built. The Salween River has been described as the lifeblood of millions of ethnic people in Myanmar, with its interruption and destruction by damming leading to death of culture. Much like the Warragamba project today, SMEC were accused of blatantly taking a pro-dam position, downplaying the negatives of the project and making promises to locals that they could not keep. In a concerning, but familiar tactic, SMEC Engineering “did not even bother visiting four of the villages they were supposed to carry out assessments in…[Their] EIA/SIA process [was] simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans, rather than objectively assess the project’s actual impacts”.
This dam project has not only jeopardised the ways of life for a significant number of unique ethnic groups that are Indigenous to the borderlands of Myanmar, it also has allowed the government to militarise these areas and further commit abuses against the groups. The dam is set to destroy “ancestral lands of ethnic peoples in Myanmar struggling to protect their indigenous rights, culture livelihoods, and traditional way of life.” The dam itself provides little benefit to local communities or even the state of Myanmar, with 90% of the hydro-power it generates being diverted to China and Thailand.
More recently (in 2017) SMEC was debarred by the World Bank from working in development and aid projects in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh following allegations of bribery and corruption. The Australian Federal Police raided their Sydney offices to investigate claims that SMEC “staff allegedly bribed officials to secure a $2.3 million aid-funded sewerage project in Sri Lanka in 2011 and…a $2.2 million power plant project in Bangladesh in 2007”.
Harry Burkitt, campaign director at GIVE A DAM said: “This is a dodgy engineering form for a dodgy project. The community is rightfully asking how the NSW Government felt that SMEC was an appropriate company to consult with our Indigenous communities over the Warragamba Dam project. If they wanted a controversial company that has been involved in corruption, human rights abuses and dodgy EIS rubber-stamping, then they picked the right firm. Australia’s Traditional Owners deserve better than SMEC. The Blue Mountains World Heritage Area deserves better than SMEC. Western Sydney deserves better than SMEC.
“I have a little doubt that the upcoming NSW Parliamentary Inquiry will examine in detail the questionable history of SMEC internationally and the quality of the work that has been completed to date on the Warragamba Dam wall project by SMEC Engineering, and if they meet the requirements expected of the community and cultural assessment guidelines.”