NEED TO KNOW / July 2019
In early May this year, M. Nasir Siregar arrived in the village on a brand-new dirt bike – his official vehicle as a staff member of Indonesia’s Nature Conservation Agency, or BKSDA. Nasir was no stranger to the people of Sitandiang, as he frequently used to visit there in his previous role as a conservationist, escorting researchers studying the rare and endangered Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).
As a local guide, he had a tough job that day to explain the importance of these apes to the journalists visiting the area, as well as local members of the agency and employees of PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE). He may have extensive knowledge of the orangutans, but like hundreds of thousands of fellow residents of North Sumatra, he also faces frequent electricity outages, which can sometimes last for days. But many questions and concerns have been raised since NSHE initiated the construction of a hydropower plant in the area some time ago.
While the need for an adequate and reliable electricity supply is evident, the project’s environmental impact has also become a concern for many. Some worry about deforestation and the continued survival of endangered species in the area, while others fear the risk posed by earthquakes, which could potentially result in catastrophic flooding if the proposed dam breaks.
It is true that North Sumatra has become a focus point for infrastructure development. Some projects have been completed and are already operational, such as the Kuala Tanjung Multipurpose Terminal, Sei Mangkei Special Economic Zone and state mining holding company Inalum’s aluminum diversification project, while others are still under construction, such as state utility company PT PLN’s substation project, state-owned plantation company PTPN III’s cooking oil factory and the 17-kilometer-long Medan-Binjai Toll Road.
The Need for Clean Energy and Challenges Ahead
The government is making serious efforts to boost the availability of electricity in the region in response to the increase in economic activity. NSHE will build a 510-megawatt hydroelectric power plant worth Rp 22 trillion ($1.6 billion) in North Tapanuli. The power plant, which is expected to be fully operation by 2022, will make the region more attractive to investors and contribute to plans to develop this part of Sumatra into a new business hub over the next decade. The new plant will also save Indonesia up to $400 million per year on foreign exchange, which includes the cost of renting a floating power plant from a Turkish company. Most importantly, however, is that it would reduce carbon emissions by up to 1.6 megatons per year by eliminating the use of diesel fuel for power generation.
The quest for clean energy has been a serious challenge. Many people are against the idea. Environmental activist groups, such as the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), Foundation for a Sustainable Ecosystem (YEL) and Mighty Earth, oppose the construction of the Batang Toru Hydropower Plant because they believe it would threaten the sustainability of the Batangtoru ecosystem and the natural habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared the Tapanuli orangutan, locally known as mawas, an endangered species because the population is below 800. Environmental activists say the apes already face serious threats from land clearing, conflict with humans, illegal hunting and illegal gold mining, which would be compounded by the development of a hydroelectric power plant.
Walhi further claims that the project site has long been the Tapanuli orangutan’s densest habitat, which will come under intense pressure with the influx of even more people into the area. Dana Prima Tarigan, executive director of Walhi in North Sumatra is expected that PT NSHE will conduct a strong regulation to protect the apes. “We hope the company will conduct comprehensive awareness campaigns among the community about the steps it plans to take to mitigate each risk.” Dana told GlobeAsia via long distance telephone call. This does not include the risk of earthquakes that could cause the dam to break, resulting in massive floods. Therefore a complete study is suggested by professor Tengku Abdullah Sani of the Bandung Institute of Technology.
Despite these valid concerns, some studies show the opposite. Didik Djarwadi, a researcher at the National Earthquake Study Center, claims the project, based on his studies, would be safe if it complied with established construction standards. For example, “the dam must be able to withstand strong tremors from an extreme earthquake, which is referred to as a safety evaluation earthquake, or maximum credible earthquake,” he said.
“We have calculated various possibilities and collected data over the past few years – earthquake data recorded in North Sumatra. This result is what we submitted and used to give parameters for the building of a dam that meets International Commission on Large Dams specifications and conditions, including on anticipated earthquakes. Based on our calculations, earthquakes often occur near the dam site but the magnitude is no more than 2 and cannot be felt by humans.” Didik said.
NSHE has also conducted a detailed flood management study. A report by the Indonesian National Committee on Large Dams (KNIBB) further shows that the project carries very little risk despite being categorized as a large dam. Hadi Susilo of the KNIBB confirmed that the study showed it was safe to proceed with the project.
Water, Nature and Energy
Activist also pay much attention to the issue of water supply, as they believe the project will negatively affect water resources in the area, as many trees will be cut down.
However, Firman Taufick, vice president of communications and social affairs at NHSE, said environmental activists are exaggerating these concerns. “The hydropower plant is very dependent on water and earth’s gravity. How can it be said hydropower destroys ecosystems while it relies heavily on ecosystems, especially forests, as water providers?” he said.
“Water is the main source of hydropower. It is not difficult to imagine that if there is environmental degradation in the upstream zone of the river, the water will dry up and the hydropower plant will not receive enough water,” he added.
As water plays such an important role, it becomes an obligation for the company to preserve the Bata Toru area, particularly its forests and river. “We impose a zero-tolerance policy. Any employees or project workers – whether experts from abroad or local workers – disturbing wild animals will be subject to sanctions, and we also coordinate with the North Sumatra chapter of the Nature Conservation Agency when we find protected animals,” Firman said.
Environmentalist consider Batangtoru a haven for tapirs, sun bears, Sumatran forest goats, golden cats, Sumatran tigers and the world’s rarest great ape, the Tapanuli orangutan, which are all native to the region.
Agus Djoko Ismanto, a senior environmental advisor at NSHE, claims that the power plant will not threaten the natural habitat of this critically endangered species of orangutan. “We are ready to contribute to every effort to preserve the existence of the orangutan. Because in the study we conducted, we found along the Batangtoru River, from upstream to downstream, only one point where there was a corridor connecting the two orangutan habitats in the west and east. Only one point is connected; that is in the hamlet of Sitandiang,” Agus said.
The company is currently only using 120 of the 650 hectares it acquired to develop the project. The rest will be preserved to ensure a healthy ecosystem for the animals of Tapanuli. “It is to Sitandiang hamlet that we pay most attention, because we will also maintain this natural orangutan corridor.” Agus said, adding that the company employs limited numbers of personnel, as the rest will be empowered through community development programs.
NSHE is currently helping residents cultivate jurung, a local fish species, which was previously impossible. Now, with knowledge and assistance from the company, efforts to increase the size of the fish population are succeeding. Marihot Anton Sihombing, a local farmer, already benefits from this initiative as it allows him to earn enough money to support his family.
“In addition to Anton, we also strengthen various local business ventures, such as the production of kolang kaling, jengkol, palm sugar, ant sugar, coffee, rattan and livestock. Local tradition, which forbids people from disturbing animals in the forest, also helps, because this ensures that the forest is maintained,” Agus said.
Sampaitua Hutasuhut, the head of the local village, confirmed the statement by saying local people have been provided with enough skills training to increase local food production. “We have received training from Conservation International on biological diversity and the riches of the forests surrounding our hamlet; about having a proper attitude to take care of protected animals and their food sources, and how to share our environment with the animals in a harmonious way,” he said.
“We don’t mind sharing our favorite foods, such as durian and jengkol, with mawas or siamang [Symphalangus syndactylus], as we understand that they have been living here long before us,” another resident added.
Firman of NHSE also explained that the project is backed by private investment, so it does not burden the state budget. “Obviously, this is an independent power producer project, which means it is initiated and carried out by the private sector. All initiations and studies are from our side; early studies that we started back in 2008. PT PLN itself has never opened an auction process for this project, because indeed, the initiative came from NSHE. It is not cheap to carry out a study and obtain an environmental impact assessment permit, all funded by NSHE. This is what needs to be explained,” he said.
Apart from all the problems and challenges that come with the construction of the Batang Toru Hydropower Plant, the development of renewable energy has become very important, given the fact that conventional sources of energy, such as fossil fuels, are running out fast.
Hydroelectric and geothermal power plants are very reliable in increasing the share of renewables in the national energy mix. Increasing the use of renewable energy is important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Ignasius Jonan, Indonesia’s minister of energy and mineral resources, said geothermal and hydropower plants will become the backbone of electricity produced from new and renewable energy sources. He said 10 percent of Indonesia’s national electricity supply currently comes from geothermal and hydropower, while 3 percent issourced from solar, wind and biomass.
“Geothermal and hydropower are the backbone, because it can create electricity on a large scale,” Jonan said after signing a memorandum of understanding with Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya in Jakarta recently.
He vowed to continue government support for the development of geothermal and hydropower plants in Indonesia.
Regarding the construction of the Batang Toru Hydropower Plant, Jonan said the project was important to support the electricity supply in Sumatra. The project, which is currently under construction, has long been included in the national general plan for electricity supply because of the urgent need in Sumatra. “If it was not urgent, it would not be built,” the minister said.
Diesel and coal-fired power plants release combustion products into the air and cause air pollution, which affects the environment. Meanwhile, hydro-, solar and wind power plants are very clean and environmentally friendly choices. There is no reason to delay the start of an energy revolution by switching to clean and renewable sources of energy. In the case of the Batang Toru Hydropower Plant, nature conservation can run parallel with the development of a source of new and renewable energy. All parties can work together to create a protected environment and ecosystem while at the same time, ensure a sustainable supply of electricity.
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