Massive hydroelectricity project planned for Indonesian Borneo

  • A $17 billion hydroelectricity project on the Kayan River is slated to begin construction in early 2017.

  • Experts fear the project, which is expected to affect 184,270 hectares, will have a severe impact on the area’s ecosystem and indigenous people.

  • There has been little opposition to the project, with local leaders saying they believe it will bring economic development to the region.

It seems there is always something to take from the island of Kalimantan, Indonesia. The island, also known as Borneo, has already been vastly deforested — logged and cleared, mined for coal or burned and replanted with oil palm. Now, Indonesia’s government is turning to yet another resource: hydro-power. By building a series of dams along the Kayan River, which flows along the northern part of the island, the country’s electricity authority hopes to generate 6,080 megawatts of hydroelectricity.

Plans call for the construction of five dams ranging from 90 to 160 meters (295 to 525 feet) high, which are projected to affect 184,270 hectares (455,341 acres) in a remote, lightly inhabited area with large tracts of pristine forest. The project will also involve building generators, power substations, transmission lines and other associated infrastructure.

The first phase of the project — a 900 megawatt dam — is slated to begin construction in February 2017 in the Peso district of North Kalimantan’s Bulungan regency. While the project has raised alarm from conservationists, it has so far generated little public outcry.

The Kayan hydroelectric project was first reported in 2013 when then-Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM) Jero Wacik announced that Chinese state-owned utility company China Power Investment (CPI) had committed to investing around $17 billion into the project. The promise of such an enormous investment was welcomed by the government, and a host of dignitaries from the ESDM, local governments and the military attended a 2014 ground-breaking ceremony.

Work has already begun to prepare the first dam site and earlier this month the Director of PT Kayan Hydro Energy, the local partner for the project, announced the company had reached an agreement with President Joko Widodo to begin the construction phase in February 2017.

Experts fear damming the Kayan River for hydroelectric power could have a serious impact on both the area’s ecosystem and its human population. Like all rivers in Kalimantan, the Kayan is socially and ecologically important. It is integral to the culture of the island’s indigenous peoples, including the Dayak Kayan who have lived along the river’s banks for centuries. The river is also a migration path for both freshwater and marine fish, while the forests surrounding the river are home to orangutans, gibbons and an astonishing array of other plant and animal species.

“Rivers are very important in the life cycle of fish. The dam project will disturb fish reproduction as well as their physiology. If it happens, it will disturb the balance of ecosystem, both in the sea and in the river,” Iwan Suyatna, a fisheries expert at the University of Mulawarman in East Kalimantan, told Mongabay. For example, Suyatna explains, the marine fish Setipinna sp. is found in the river. “This fish is ecologically important because larger fish feed on them. If their number is reduced, something will happen in the food chain,” he says.

Meanwhile, Imam Ardhianto, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Indonesia, worries about the resettlement of indigenous people whose homes will be inundated by the dams. “Where will they go after the construction? Will they move downstream or upstream?” he asks. “If they go downstream, they will lose their access to hunting grounds and non-timber forest products. The village areas will also be narrower than they are now. Or will they stay upstream? If so, there is a plan to open an oil palm plantation there, so the land will become scarce,” he explained.

Ardhianto has done fieldwork near the Bakun Dam, across the Malaysian border in Sawarak, and fears the difficulties faced by indigenous people there might be a preview of what awaits people affected by dams on the Kayan. While in Sarawak, he says he often heard complaints from local people who say the dam site is no longer habitable and that fish in the river have become too bitter to eat.

Despite these concerns, the prospect of dams along the Kayan River has so far failed to prompt the sort resistance seen in neighboring Sarawak, where proposed dams have met with years of sustained protests from villagers and conservation groups. In 2013, Indonesian environment group Walhi spoke out against the plans for the Kayan River, but otherwise there have not been widespread or publicized protests.Experts fear damming the Kayan River for hydroelectric power could have a serious impact on both the area’s ecosystem and its human population. Like all rivers in Kalimantan, the Kayan is socially and ecologically important. It is integral to the culture of the island’s indigenous peoples, including the Dayak Kayan who have lived along the river’s banks for centuries. The river is also a migration path for both freshwater and marine fish, while the forests surrounding the river are home to orangutans, gibbons and an astonishing array of other plant and animal species.

“Rivers are very important in the life cycle of fish. The dam project will disturb fish reproduction as well as their physiology. If it happens, it will disturb the balance of ecosystem, both in the sea and in the river,” Iwan Suyatna, a fisheries expert at the University of Mulawarman in East Kalimantan, told Mongabay. For example, Suyatna explains, the marine fish Setipinna sp. is found in the river. “This fish is ecologically important because larger fish feed on them. If their number is reduced, something will happen in the food chain,” he says.

Meanwhile, Imam Ardhianto, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Indonesia, worries about the resettlement of indigenous people whose homes will be inundated by the dams. “Where will they go after the construction? Will they move downstream or upstream?” he asks. “If they go downstream, they will lose their access to hunting grounds and non-timber forest products. The village areas will also be narrower than they are now. Or will they stay upstream? If so, there is a plan to open an oil palm plantation there, so the land will become scarce,” he explained.

Ardhianto has done fieldwork near the Bakun Dam, across the Malaysian border in Sawarak, and fears the difficulties faced by indigenous people there might be a preview of what awaits people affected by dams on the Kayan. While in Sarawak, he says he often heard complaints from local people who say the dam site is no longer habitable and that fish in the river have become too bitter to eat.

Despite these concerns, the prospect of dams along the Kayan River has so far failed to prompt the sort resistance seen in neighboring Sarawak, where proposed dams have met with years of sustained protests from villagers and conservation groups. In 2013, Indonesian environment group Walhi spoke out against the plans for the Kayan River, but otherwise there have not been widespread or publicized protests.

Henoch Merang, head of the North Kalimantan Indigenous People Association, told Mongabay he enthusiastically welcomes the project, which he believes will bring many economic benefits to the area. “We strongly agree with the plan because it is for the development of the North Kalimantan area. It will create many jobs and it will be good for our economy. But now we are still waiting for the realization of the project,” said Merang

Merang said he also expects the project will lead to better infrastructure connecting the river’s upstream and downstream areas. According to Merang, just two villages in Long Peso subdistrict — Long Bia and Long Leju — will be flooded for this damming project and “only” around 300 people will be relocated.

Bulungan Regent Budiman Arifin is equally supportive of the project. In a press statement distributed by the ESDM, he argued that his regency needs more electricity because only 33 of Bulungan’s 81 villages have 24-hour electricity. An additional 26 villages have only 12 hours of electricity, and the rest have no electricity at all. He has pinned his hopes on the dam project solving this problem.

His hopes may be premature; an official from Indonesia’s state-owned energy company PLN said the power from the first dam will be used not for the villagers, but for the smelting industry. The energy ministry, meanwhile, points to the Kayan hydroelectricity project’s potential to reduce Indonesia’s reliance on oil for electricity generation, and to the prospect of boosting the economy by selling excess electricity to Sabah and Sarawak—territories in neighboring Malaysia, which has its own energy megaprojects.

Raga Candradimuka, a social activist from North Kalimantan Intellectual Forum, says local people will bear the burden of the project but are unlikely to gain much from it. The scope of the scheme, to generate 6,080 megawatts, greatly exceeds the area’s energy needs, he told Mongabay. “The biggest benefit will be given to the industrial sector. Local people will not get much from this project,” he said.

In 2014, Candradimuka traveled to Peso district, in the upper reaches of the Kayan River and met the area’s inhabitants as well as company employees doing preliminary work on the dam site. At that time, he says, the project appeared to be going smoothly. “I didn’t find any sign of opposition from the local people and it seems they are happy with the plan. I heard the company promised compensation of 2 billion rupiah ($153,640) per household,” he told Mongabay.

Candradimuka also criticizes the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment document (AMDAL). The AMDAL was signed off on in January 2014, ahead of the official groundbreaking ceremony. This assessment indicated that the upstream area of Kayan river is safe enough for damming, but in February 2015, a flash flood swept the site and inundated many houses. “I suspect the AMDAL file did not go through a rigorous environmental assessment. How could a megaproject mispredict such a big flood?” said Candradimuka, who calls on the government to carefully review the site’s environmental assessment.

But Candradimuka’s concern, and the worries voiced by other experts, stand in sharp opposition to the enthusiasm of Merang and other locals who are anticipating the project’s launch. “The ESDM Ministry has come for groundbreaking. Now, we are just waiting for the realization,” said Merang.