The Asian Development Bank has approved technical assistance to Malaysia for hydropower studies in Sabah and Sarawak.

Sabah and Sarawak compose East Malaysia, which is separated from West Malaysia on the Malay Penninsula by about 400 miles of the South China Sea.

The grant seeks to aid Malay's efforts to bring electricity to rural regions and narrow the gap between East and West Malaysia. Seven areas have been selected for the studies: two in Sabah and five in Sarawak.

Malaysia primarily depends on imported oil to generate power. But people in rural houses traditionally use wood and charcoal as fuel. Although reserves of peat and coal exist, it is not considered economical to mine them.

But East Malaysia has potential for hydroelectric energy because of its abundant rainfall and steep gradients of rivers in the interior highlands.

The project will study the need and uses for electricity in Sabah and Sarawak. It also will determine the technical and cost feasibilities of installing hydropower plants.

The physical separation of mainland Malaysia and insular Malaysia leads to communication problems. And there are wide disparities in their degree of development and living standards.

West Malaysia has four cities with populations greater than 200,000, and the capital of Kuala Lumpur has more than 900,000 people, according to a 1980 census. East Malaysia is primarily rural. Only one city, Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, has a population greater than 200,000. Many people live in houses built on stilts along the coasts and the rivers, while few live in the foothills.

The project will be carried out over a seven-month period and will begin no later than August 1987. A team of consultants with expertise in civil, electromechanical engineering, geology, hydrology and energy economics will conduct the studies.

Following the initial studies, the Malaysian government will undertake a study with detailed design and implementation plans for hydropower plants.