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As Beijing Prepares to Lead on Biodiversity, It Should Rethink Its Hydropower

10 March 2019

China-backed Hydropower Threatens to Wipe Out the Rarest Great Ape on Earth

Bank of China – financed Batang Toru dam threatens the Tapanuli Orangutan’s shrinking forest home

In 2020, China will host the biannual meeting of the Assembly of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), a multilateral treaty that commits its signatories to developing strategies to conserve and sustainably use the Earth’s biological diversity and genetic resources. The Beijing meeting is the capstone on the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity, which has aimed to raise the profile of the Convention and protect biological resources through technology, increased conservation funding, and capacity-building in developing countries.

By the time conference-goers touch down in Beijing, however, a hydroelectric dam in Indonesia, built by China’s largest hydropower construction company, Sinohydro, with funding provided by the Bank of China, may have killed off the remaining population of Earth’s rarest primate, the Tapanuli orangutan.

Video: New Species of Orangutan – The Tapanuli Orangutan

Construction of any infrastructure in the target area’s fragile ecosystem will have significant impacts on the unique and highly biodiverse Batang Toru forests, and in particular the newly-discovered Tapanuli orangutan. Beyond the immediate effects of the dam, the infrastructure required for construction and operation will have a sizeable impact on the surrounding area, as reported by the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2018/apr/23/worlds-newest-great-ape-threatened-by-chinese-dam).

Costs of Hydropower Outweigh Benefits

The dam is a ‘peaker,’ which supplies electricity during high loads, from 1800 to 2400 hours, meaning the claimed ‘510 MW capacity’ will only be reached for six hours a day. The river flow will be stored for 18 hours, then released to generate electricity for six hours, forcing the river to a trickle for 18 hours and a flood for six. This disruption will have significant negative social and economic impacts on people living below the dam, especially those who depend on agriculture, fisheries, and water transportation sectors. It will no longer be possible to cultivate rice beside the river, for example (https://www.orangutans-sos.org/content/uploads/2018/05/Damming-Evidence.pdf).

Professor Bill Laurance from ALERT (http://alert-conservation.org/), a group vocally opposed to the project, summarizes, “the Batang Toru hydro-project will be hugely expensive as an energy source, non-essential given there are cost-effective energy alternatives readily at hand, and intensely risky for local people downriver because of the great vulnerability of this region to devastating earthquakes.”

Where Others Dare Not Tread: Chinese Funding for Batang Toru

Initially, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) had pledged to underwrite the Batang Toru dam. However, in light of the discovery of the Tapanuli orangutan and the World Bank and Asian Development Bank backed out of funding the project. Bank of China has largely filled this void.

An Opportunity for Environmental Leadership

The Batang Toru hydropower project extends the promise of cleaner energy and development, but at a heavy price. And for the Tapanuli orangutan, the Batang Toru project presents a definite existential threat.

Time remains to reassess the project and consider all options available for meeting the power generation promised by the project. A comprehensive options assessment should bring into much clearer focus the biodiversity and conservation aspects of the proposed dam, including new technologies as well as potential alternative sites and designs for other hydropower options so as to avoid impacting the threatened forest and orangutan species. Integrating the value of the intact forest and the protections of habitat and threatened species into the cost-benefit analyses for the project will be an important aspect to financing and risk assessments of the project. 

Another factor is that the project has been brought before the Indonesian courts in a lawsuit spearheaded by WAHLI (The Indonesian Forum for Environment). In addition to WAHLI and ALERT, a suite of environmental groups are concerned by this project, including groups like the Sumatra Orangutan Society (SOS) and, in China, the China Biodiversity and Conservation Green Development Foundation. It is possible that, in light of China’s growing role as a leader in environmental issues and President Xi’s pursuit of a ‘green’ One Belt One Road, leaders in government, renewable energy, and finance will come together to responsibly protect the Batang Toru forest and our close relative the Tapanuli Orangutan in the name of Biodiversity.

Source International rivers

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