- A North Sumatra resident has gone missing and is feared dead after a landslide struck the site of a hydropower plant located in the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan.
- Afuan Ritonga, 38, was swept into the Batang Toru River by a torrent of mud on Dec. 4, during an operation to clear away debris from a landslide that struck the previous day following heavy rains.
- The excavator that Afuan was operating was later reportedly discovered downstream, but he remains missing.
- The government has identified the area as having a medium to high risk of landslides, while environmental activists and scientists say the region is also prone to earthquakes because it sits near a tectonic fault line.
JAKARTA — One person is missing and feared dead following a series of landslides near the site of a planned hydropower plant in the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan in Sumatra.
Heavy rains triggered an initial landslide on Dec. 3 in the Batang Toru forest in North Sumatra province, Indonesian officials said. On Dec. 4, Afuan Ritonga, a 38-year-old local, was taking part in a cleanup effort at the site when another, bigger landslide, struck. The torrent of mud swept Afuan and the excavator he was in down the 200-meter (660-foot) slope and into the Batang Toru River, where they were swept away by the heavy current.
The excavator was reportedly later discovered downstream, but Afuan is still missing, with a search-and-rescue operation now underway.
“The heavy equipment is still at the bottom of the river and hasn’t been retrieved yet,” Ilham Suhardi, the head of the district disaster mitigation agency, said Dec. 6 as quoted by news outlet Berita Satu. “A joint team hasn’t been able to determine the fate of the operator [Afuan].”
According to a report about the landslides in a database managed by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, the site of the incident is located in an area with a medium to high risk of landslides because of high rainfall, the hilly terrain, and poor drainage.
Besides the risk of landslides, environmental activists and scientists have also flagged the area’s susceptibility to earthquakes, with the hydropower project sitting near a known tectonic fault line. Seismic activity such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common throughout much of Indonesia, given its position on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and northern Sumatra in particular is a hotspot for seismic activity. In 2008, a quake of magnitude struck just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the site of the planned dam.
Officials from project developer PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE) have acknowledged the earthquake risk. But critics say there are no mitigation plans based on this risk included in the environmental impact analysis that the developer submitted to authorities.
NSHE spokesman Firman Taufick said the landslide was the first natural disaster to hit the area since the construction of the hydropower project commenced in 2015. The company says it is working with local officials to search for Afuan and will launch an investigation into the cause of the incident and take steps to mitigate similar events in the future.
“We express our condolences to the family of the victim and hope [they] can be patient to wait for the result of the search efforts done by the local disaster mitigation agency, the mobile brigade corps and volunteers who are working to get the maximum result,” Firman said in a statement to Mongabay. “The company will take full responsibility on the incident in accordance to existing regulations and policies set up by the company.”
Related listening: Hear this reporter discuss the proposed Batang Toru dam on our latest podcast episode:
Banner image: Search-and-rescue team tries to locate Afuan Ritonga, 38, who is missing and feared to be dead after he was swept into the Batang Toru River by a torrent of mud on Dec. 4. Image courtesy of PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE).
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