China-led Dam Project Under Fire in Sumatra
Tiny subspecies of orangutan under threat
By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Yeta Purnama
A frizzy-haired subspecies of Indonesia’s beloved – and critically endangered – orangutan population, whose population has fallen by 83 percent over the past 75 years, faces a major threat from a Chinese-backed 510-megawatt hydroelectric dam under construction on the Batang Toru River in northern Sumatra, environmentalists say. The dam, which critics say will also endanger the livelihoods of hundreds of villagers, is also being built in an area prone to landslides.
The dam, under construction since 2015 and slated to become operational soon, is a part of China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is transforming infrastructure across the world. Unfortunately, it also lies near the Sumatran Fault, on which since 1919, there have been 947 earthquakes in Aceh and North Sumatra, according to the environmental NGO Third Pole. Since 1965, Third Pole said, 60 earthquakes have occurred within a 25-km radius of the planned dam site. In 2008, an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale occurred just 10 km below the Earth’s surface only 4.1 km from the site of the dam. There are fears that there could be a repeat of the 1892 Tapanuli earthquake, which measured 7.5-7.7 on the Richter scale and struck the Angkola segment in the Sumatra Fault Zone, within a few kilometers of the dam site, raising concerns that the dam could even collapse in an earthquake.
The majority of the orangutan population extinction across Indonesia has been caused by hunting and eroded by infrastructure projects. In the Tapanuli area where the Batang Toru dam is being built, there are only 800 animals left. The Tapanuli orangutans, called the rarest orangutan species on Earth and confirmed to be a distinct species in 2017, are restricted to this small area of Sumatra. The Batang Toru hydropower project threatens to take away its habitat.
Based on 2022 research conducted by Divya Narain and a team from The University of Queensland, dam projects funded by China are not environmentally friendly and pose a risk to biodiversity, hence the danger to the Tapanuli orangutans. By contrast, faced with widespread criticism from environmental groups, the World Bank, formerly the world’s most prolific funder of big dams, has been cutting its involvement in large dams and is focusing more on financing dam rehabilitation and safety and less on financing new dams, according to a statement by the bank. The Bank of China has also backed away from funding the Tapanuli project after objections from environmentalists including WALHI (Friends of the Earth) North Sumatra, as did two multinational development banks.
Construction is ongoing under a power purchase agreement between PT North Sumatera Hydro Energy (NSHE) and the State Electricity Company (PLN). It is being built by NSHE in collaboration with Sinohydro, the Chinese state-backed engineering and construction company and funded by SDIC Power Holding, which is also a Chinese investor.
As western public investors have turned sour on the construction of large dams, China under the Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investment program has been present to play the role of investor in the field of hydropower infrastructure with 49 large-scale hydroelectric dams funded in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Six major Chinese banks fund these projects, although it is unknown if they have protection standards to minimize environmental damage and protect biodiversity. It should be noted if Chinese regulators and host countries have implemented adequate safeguards.
Several studies have found serious problems in the application of environmental regulations generally in the construction of dams supported by China which lead to the risk of damage to biodiversity. This is compounded by the fact that no obligation has been made by Chinese regulators to reduce environmental damage to hydropower projects. Not only that, some regulatory policies contain non-binding guidelines. Some of the policies of the Chinese government are actually subject to the laws of the country where the dam is built. However, most of these projects still do not have strict laws in place to limit environmental damage caused by infrastructure projects, and many of these laws are not yet complete and are still in the stage of approval. As a result, the threat of extinction overshadows protected species that live around the project area.
Threat of extinction in Tapanuli
Ideally the Batang Toru Dam was to be built to increase the energy supply in the region. Several parties said that the development had been designed using environmentally friendly technology and would not have a major impact. However, in reality, the development required digging tunnels where most of the orangutan population's habitat is located. So, slowly the project has begun to impinge on the survival of these animals. Due to the very high potential for the extinction of the orangutan species in Tapanuli, after receiving many international protests, the Bank of China, which had wanted to offer funding for the project, finally withdrew its offer.
According to a report from Brown Brothers Energy and Environment in 2020, the Batang Toru hydropower dam is not materially sufficient to improve access or regularity of electricity supply in the North Sumatra region. Though the region already has a surplus of electricity supply, the project continued. In fact, the Batang Toru hydropower plant is also not the only controversy over environmental damage caused by a Chinese-funded project. Recently, a Chinese-funded nickel project on Obi Island, North Maluku also received widespread attention from the Indonesian media and the local environmental community over concerns the mining project threatens the marine ecosystem due to poor waste management.
Dr. Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel and a lecturer at Universitas Islam Indonesia in Jakarta. Yeta Purnama is a freelance writer.