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Deadly landslide hits Indonesian dam project in orangutan habitat, again

Members of search-and-rescue team try to locate victims of a landslide at the site of the Batang Toru hydropower plant in South Tapanuli, North Sumatra, Indonesia, on April 30, 2021. Image courtesy of South Tapanuli Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD).

  • A landslide at the site of a hydropower plant located in the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan has claimed the lives of three people, with nine others still missing.
  • It’s the second deadly landslide here in the past five months, with the project sitting in an area that’s prone to natural disasters, including earthquakes.
  • Activists say the back-to-back landslides are reason enough for the area to be protected, instead of being licensed for large-scale projects, such as mining and infrastructure.

JAKARTA — Three people are reportedly dead and nine are missing after a landslide hit the site of a planned hydropower plant in the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan in Sumatra.

At around midday April 29, heavy rains began pounding the site in the Batang Toru ecosystem in North Sumatra province. By the afternoon, it had triggered a torrent of mud that swept away workers and locals who were at the site at that time.

On April 30, search-and-rescue teams managed to find three dead bodies — one woman and two children, all local residents.

Nine other people are still missing, comprising six locals and three workers. Two of the workers had gone to the site to document the flooding when they were swept away by the landslide.

This is not the first time the China-backed project was hit by disaster. In December 2020, a series of landslides struck the area. A 38-year-old local was swept away by the landslide while operating an excavator to clean up an earlier landslide.

The excavator was reportedly later discovered downstream, but the operator, Afuan, was never found.

report about the December landslides in a database managed by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources shows that the site of the incident is in an area with a medium to high risk of landslides because of high rainfall, 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 6 struck just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the site of the planned dam.

The country’s largest environmental NGO, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said the back-to-back landslides are not a surprise; it said activists have long warned about the risk of natural disasters in the area.

Walhi also criticized the lack of a proper disaster mitigation plan in the hydropower project’s environmental impact analysis, which it had raised in an earlier lawsuit seeking to get the project halted on the basis of permit violations. Walhi said disasters are imminent since the project sits in a fragile ecosystem that’s prone to disasters.  A court rejected the lawsuit in 2019.

“That’s what we’re worried about and why we filed a lawsuit and advocated [against the project],” Doni Latuperisa, head of Walhi’s North Sumatra chapter, told Mongabay. “It’s what we suspected from the beginning, which is that infrastructure projects in the Batang Toru landscape have the potential to induce ecological disasters.”

That’s why the area should be off-limits to large-scale projects like the hydropower dam, activists say. The area is also home to mining activity, including a gold mine operated by PT Agincourt Resources.

Crucially, the Batang Toru ecosystem is also the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), the most recently described orangutan species and also the most threatened great ape in the world.

Today, fewer than 800 of the apes are known to inhabit the Batang Toru forest, where they occupy just 2.5% of their historical range, their population decimated by loss of habitat and hunting.

Doni said this is all the more reason why all infrastructure projects in the area should be halted and evaluated.

“Projects in the Batang Toru landscape threaten the ecosystem and the biodiversity in it,” he said. “Especially the Tapanuli orangutans with less than 800 surviving individuals.”

A local government spokesman, Ismut Siregar, said the landslide had nothing to do with the hydropower project.

“It needs to be emphasized that this incident is purely a natural disaster due to high rainfall for three straight days,” he said. “And thus this has no link to activities in the Batang Toru hydropower plant.”

 

Banner image: Members of search-and-rescue team try to locate victims of a landslide at the site of the Batang Toru hydropower plant in South Tapanuli, North Sumatra, Indonesia, on April 30, 2021. Image courtesy of South Tapanuli Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD). 

 

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