At least three people were killed and nine missing, officials said Friday, when torrential rains unleashed a landslide near the construction site of a controversial China-backed hydropower plant in Indonesia’s Sumatra region.
This is the second deadly landslide near the site of the U.S. $1.5 billion Batang Toru plant, which is being built in a rainforest where endangered Tapanuli orangutans live.
In Thursday’s landslide, piles of mud and debris spilled from a 50-meter (164 feet) high cliff and swept away locals and some workers below, said a senior official at the regional disaster mitigation agency (BPBD). The slide occurred after three consecutive days of heavy rain.
“This morning, three bodies were found and they have now been taken to the hospital for an autopsy,” Handi Febrial Batubara, the head of mitigation at the agency, said in a statement to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
The three who perished were a woman and two children.
Dozens of emergency personnel, including soldiers and police, took part in the search for the missing in Marancar, a village in North Sumatra’s Tapanuli Selatan regency, Handi said.
According to an initial report, nine people were missing, but the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) fears the death toll may rise because more people may be buried under mud and debris, spokesman Raditya Jati said.
“The team is still searching for the missing people,” Raditya told BenarNews.
The Batang Toru hydropower plant is operated by a consortium, PT North Sumatera Hydro Energy (NSHE). China’s ZheFu Holding Group owns a majority stake in it.
Two of the missing nine people – one Indonesian and one Chinese national – are NSHE employees, said company spokesperson Firman Taufick.
More than 120 of the 1,200 employees constructing the 510-megawatt project are Chinese nationals, a senior NSHE adviser told BenarNews last year.
Firman said the company would do its best to search for victims who may be buried under debris.
“We hope that the search can run smoothly. The company will do its best. Last night it was impossible for us to do a search because the terrain was tough ,so it only started this morning,” he said.
The hydropower plant in Sumatra is one of several infrastructure projects being built across the Indonesian archipelago as part of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) scheme. The ambitious scheme aims to build a 21st century Silk Road by weaving a network of railways, ports, bridges, and dams linking China with Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
Construction of the plant was suspended last February because Chinese workers were unable to fly to Indonesia due to a travel ban instituted by Jakarta after the outbreak of COVID-19.
Commercial activities of the plant were scheduled to begin next year, but NSHE has requested the project’s underwriter to allow it to start operations in 2025, citing manpower issues.
Building activity resumed last November, and a month later a torrent of mud swept away a worker who was operating the company’s excavator to clean the site. Search teams found the heavy equipment downstream, but could not find the body, local media reported.
Firman said that Thursday’s landslide was a natural disaster caused by heavy rainfall, not construction activity.
‘Many ecological impacts’
Meanwhile, a local environmentalist said that his group had been warning that Batang Toru was highly unsuitable for building a hydropower plant.
In addition to the risk of landslides, the area is susceptible to earthquakes and the plant is located near an active fault line that runs across the length of Sumatra Island, said Doni Latuparisa, from the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI).
“Since this project was announced, we have been saying there will be many ecological impacts due to the Batang Toru hydropower landscape. One of them is floods and landslides,” Doni told BenarNews.
“That’s why WALHI urged that this project be stopped …This incident is proof of the concern that we have conveyed.”
In 2018, WALHI filed a lawsuit against the North Sumatra administration’s decision to issue permits for the hydropower project, citing its potentially harmful impact on the rainforest.
The court rejected the lawsuit a year later, saying the permits were granted according to established procedures and did not violate any regulations.
Environmentalists and scientists are also against the project because the Batang Toru Ecosystem is the only known home to the Tapanuli orangutan, which was first observed in 1939.
These great apes were identified as a distinct species in 2017, and were listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Environmental groups say the power plant would divide the habitat of about 800 Tapanuli orangutans and increase the risk of their extinction.
NSHE had said the project would not threaten protected animals, including the orangutans.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.