The development of a $1.6 billion hydroelectric project in North Sumatra could potentially threaten the survival of the world's rarest great ape, the Tapanuli orangutan, a global activist group says. (Photo courtesy of WWF/Maxime Aliaga)

Will $1.6b Hydroelectric Plant in South Tapanuli Endanger World's Rarest Great Ape?


AUGUST 14, 2018

Jakarta. The development of a $1.6 billion hydroelectric project in North Sumatra could potentially threaten the survival of the world's rarest great ape, a global activist group said on Monday (13/08).

United States-based Avaaz has initiated an online petition asking President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to cancel construction of a dam and a 510-megawatt hydroelectric plant by North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE) in Batangtoru, South Tapanuli district.

The organization said in a statement that it has started a campaign to gather support from people around the world to help save the newly discovered Tapanuli orangutan, only found in Indonesia. It said the campaign kicked off after 25 world-renowned scientists warned that the ape species may go extinct if the government does not stop construction of the dam in the heart of its natural habitat.

"President [Joko] Widodo holds the fate of Indonesia's amazing Tapanuli orangutan in his hands. If he allows the dam [to be built], he will doom these amazing creatures," Mike Baillie, global campaigner at Avaaz, said in the statement.

"All over the world, people are calling on him to do the right thing, and save this global icon of Indonesia."

Avaaz said more than 1.2 million people have already joined its cause to save the world's last 800 Tapanuli orangutans.

It added that the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), listed as a new species in November last year, is fragmented into three populations living in high-altitude areas in the 150,000-hectare Batang Toru Ecosystem in Tapanuli.

The organization said "the dam infrastructure with roads, high-voltage cables and an underground water tunnel will drastically lessen their chances of survival."

Last year, residents of South Tapanuli also protested the project, saying that that the new dam would lead to evictions and forest destruction.

Developer Responds

The mainly Chinese-funded project is scheduled for completion in 2022, with construction likely to commence by the end of this year. The plant is expected to boost the electricity supply during peak hours and help prevent blackouts in the region.

The NSHE said in May that it already met a number of government requirements, including the completion of an environmental impact assessment and a risk analysis. It also said that it has secured several permits related to the project's social impact.

NSHE public relation manager Idham Bachtiar Setiadi responded to the Avaaz petition by saying that the company is implementing a comprehensive biodiversity action plan in respect of the Batangtoru Hydroelectric Power Plant, and that this reflects the company's commitment to maintaining the sustainability of the ecosystem and biodiversity in the area.

He added that the company knows the Batang Toru Ecosystem is home to the southernmost naturally viable orangutan populations in Sumatra.

In response to the accusation that the project may damage the Tapanuli orangutan's natural habitat, Idham said the project commenced in July last year with the building of an access road to the project site and that the power plant is designed to produce 510 megawatts, which would only require a 90-hectare pond.

"With the inundated area designed to be no larger than 90 hectares, it makes the proportion of the dam in relation to the habitat approximately 0,9994 percent," Idham said in a statement the Jakarta Globe received on Monday. He added that the inundated area will capitalize 24 hectares of the Batangtoru River body and that the remaining 66 hectares will be covering a steep area that is unoccupied.

"On top of that, research conducted between January and February last year by the North Sumatra Natural Resources Conservation Office and the Aek Nauli Environmental and Forestry Research Agency – both organizations resorting under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry – has found that the project area is not the primary habitat of the orangutans," he said.

"With a capacity of 510 megawatts, projected to come on stream in 2022, we expect the Batangtoru Hydroelectric Power Plant to strategically support Indonesia's 2025 target of 23 percent of its total electricity supply derived from renewable energy," Idham said.