Critically Endangered Orangutan Species in Indonesia Gets Reprieve as Controversial Dam Delayed
By Hans Nicholas Jong
Construction of a hydropower plant in the only known habitat of a critically endangered orangutan species on the Indonesian island of Sumatra might be delayed for up to three years due to COVID-19 and funding issues.
Muhammad Ikhsan Asaad, who oversees the project for state-owned utility PLN, said the Batang Toru plant was supposed to start operating in 2022, based on the agreement between PLN and project developer PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NHSE).
"But it might be delayed to 2025, mainly because the drawdown from lender Bank of China is stopped due to environmental concerns as well as COVID-19," he said.
In construction, a drawdown refers to a situation in which a company receives part of the funding necessary to complete a project, and the rest of the funding might be disbursed gradually over the course of the project.
The project is estimated to cost $1.68 billion, financed through equity and loans.
NSHE initially sought loans from funders like the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). But following the description of a new orangutan species, the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), in the Batang Toru ecosystem in northern Sumatra in 2017, environmentalists have called for the project to be stopped or at least halted to allow for an independent scientific study of its impact on the newly known species.
They say the project might devastate the most critical areas of the Batang Toru ecosystem and drive the Tapanuli orangutan to extinction. Only 760 of the great apes are estimated to survive in a tiny tract of forest less than one-fifth the size of the metropolitan area that comprises Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.
Shortly after its description, the Tapanuli orangutan was categorized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List due to its decreasing population trend — down by 83% in just three generations — and heavily fragmented distribution.
The IFC and ADB subsequently distanced themselves from the project. And in March 2019, the Bank of China, which is also involved in financing the project, said it had "noted the concerns expressed by some environmental organizations" and promised to carefully review the project. It has not issued any further public updates, leaving the funding for the project uncertain.
NSHE has previously confirmed that the project's funding was in doubt as a result of campaigns against the dam.
PLN director Zulkifli Zaini said environmental issues were among the reason why the project might be delayed.
"It is true that the project faced hurdles from NGOs over environmental issues," he said. "There are apes and other [animals] there."
The coronavirus outbreak has also proved to be a setback, with the work on the hydropower plant put on hold since January after construction workers from Chinese state-owned contractor Sinohydro, who had gone home for the Lunar New Year holiday, were barred entry back into Indonesia over health concerns.
NSHE has submitted a request to PLN, as the buyer of the plant's power, to push the start of the dam's operation to 2025. But the utility said a decision hadn't been made yet.
"NSHE and PLN are still in the stage of discussion or collective review regarding the target of the Batang Toru hydropower dam operational target," NSHE spokesman Firman Taufick said. "Whatever the result of the discussion between NSHE and PLN, we will always follow the policy and direction from PLN."
A decline in electricity consumption as a result of suspended economic activity during the pandemic is another factor that could delay the project, according to Riza Husni, chairman of APPLTA, a national association of hydropower plant developers.
Dana Tarigan, the head of the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said he hoped PLN would take into account the environmental concerns over the project in making a decision.
"We're hoping PLN could see the rejection well," he told Mongabay. "There's not only the problem with COVID-19, but also rejections from many parties, whether it's because of [the potential impact on] the orangutan and other biodiversity, or on the safety of the people [living in nearby areas]."
Dana said Walhi had staged a protest in 2018 against the project outside the offices of PT Pembangkit Jawa Bali (PJB) Investasi, a subsidiary of PLN that serves as the project sponsor and a shareholder in the Batang Toru power plant.
The protesters demanded that PJB Investasi, which holds a 25% stake in NSHE, to withdraw from the project.
Dana also urged PLN to take into account a recent fact-check report by the IUCN that analyzes the many contradictory claims being made about the project's potential impacts, specifically assertions made by NSHE.
The Batang Toru River, the proposed power source for a Chinese-funded hydroelectric dam. Ayat S. Karokaro / Mongabay-Indonesia
The report identifies several significant claims found in NSHE's publications or press releases as being inaccurate or misleading.
"In at least ten cases, assertions made in public-facing NSHE literature or on the NSHE website are found to be inconsistent with findings presented in earlier impact assessments conducted on behalf of NSHE," the report says.
The report also finds other claims made by NSHE contradict findings in peer-reviewed literature and technical reports.
"Some of these relate to the most controversial aspects of the project such as its impact on the Tapanuli orangutan and the ecology of the Batang Toru river, the demand for the power that the plant would produce, and the project's compliance with international investment standards," the report says.
Emmy Hafild, a senior adviser to NSHE's chairman, said the report mistakenly accounted for the whole project permit area, instead of its actual footprint, to assess its potential impact on the orangutan. She also said the permit area referred to in the report was based on the company's permit area during exploration stage, which was larger than the current permit area post-exploration.
"The IUCN fact check report is clearly wrong," Emmy said. "The report uses data that's already outdated and this is the location permit, not the footprint of the project."
Serge Wich, the co-vice chair of the IUCN primate specialists' section on great apes (SGA) and one of the researchers who described the Tapanuli orangutan, said it's clear the IUCN report refers to the whole permit area in fact-checking the company's claim.
"[A]nd we have always said that this indicates the maximum impact," he told Mongabay.
Wich said that while the project might not occupy the full area, its impact on the orangutan could still be devastating due to the location of the project, which lies at a key location for connectivity between the orangutan's subpopulations, split up across three separate blocks: west, east and south. By locating the dam there, the project would jeopardize that connectivity, he said.
Emmy denied the location of the project would impact the potential for a future forest corridor linking the western and southern populations of the orangutan.
"The footprint of the project has been checked by our friends [researchers] and it will not disturb the corridor," she said.
Wich said that might not be the case, as the latest Batang Toru ecosystem map provided by NSHE clearly shows that the project area is "a long wall-like structure cutting those three areas from each other."
The map of the Batang Toru ecosystem and the hydropower dam project area. PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE)
Didik Prasetyo, an orangutan researcher at Jakarta's National University, who conducted a study on the project, said he's confident the hydropower dam will not threaten the orangutan as long as NSHE sticks to his recommendations. Among them: limiting the amount of traffic passing over the project's roads; and designing the project's overhead power lines to allow the orangutans to travel safely beneath them.
"If it's safe, then [the orangutans] will not be scared to briefly walk on the ground [to cross from one population to another]," Didik said. "The width of the road is not too dangerous for the orangutans if there's no one passing on the road. So we're recommending the traffic be limited to particular hours."
He said rehabilitating impacted areas is also crucial.
"We're recommending to the company that there are three areas that will be impacted significantly if the company doesn't manage [the project] sustainably," Didik said. "So we recommend these most-threatened areas to be restored as soon as possible."
He said there are 273 hectares (585 acres) of orangutan habitat in the project area, of which 84 hectares (207 acres) will be used as a location for permanent buildings by the company. The remaining 189 hectares (467 acres) will be reforested, he added.
NSHE said it will offset permanent forest loss caused by the project by planting trees in other areas, while temporary forest loss will be restored.
The IUCN report, however, says restoring affected areas might not be feasible. NSHE literature identifies heaps of dug-up dirt as the areas intended for restoration, but the IUCN says this might not be realistic because these areas consist of large amounts of unconsolidated material.
"The material is from underground and is potentially sterile to rehabilitation efforts and/or volatile to erosive processes," the report says.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
By Frank La Sorte and Kyle Horton
Millions of birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds during spring and autumn migration, creating one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. These journeys often span incredible distances. For example, the Blackpoll warbler, which weighs less than half an ounce, may travel up to 1,500 miles between its nesting grounds in Canada and its wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.
Blackpoll warbler. PJTurgeon / Wikipedia<p>We used this information to determine how the number of migratory bird species varies based on each city's level of <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/light-pollution" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light pollution</a> – brightening of the night sky caused by artificial light sources, such as buildings and streetlights. We also explored how species numbers vary based on the quantity of tree canopy cover and impervious surface, such as concrete and asphalt, within each city. Our findings show that cities can help migrating birds by planting more trees and reducing light pollution, especially during spring and autumn migration.</p>
Declining Bird Populations<p>Urban areas contain numerous dangers for migratory birds. The biggest threat is the risk of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1" target="_blank">colliding with buildings or communication towers</a>. Many migratory bird populations have <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1313" target="_blank">declined over the past 50 years</a>, and it is possible that light pollution from cities is contributing to these losses.</p><p>Scientists widely agree that light pollution can <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708574114" target="_blank">severely disorient migratory birds</a> and make it hard for them to navigate. Studies have shown that birds will cluster around brightly lit structures, much like insects flying around a porch light at night. Cities are the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2029" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">primary source of light pollution for migratory birds</a>, and these species tend to be more abundant within cities <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13792" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during migration</a>, especially in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">city parks</a>.</p>
Composite image of the continental U.S. at night from satellite photos. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The Power of Citizen Science<p>It's not easy to observe and document bird migration, especially for species that migrate at night. The main challenge is that many of these species are very small, which limits scientists' ability to use electronic tracking devices.</p><p>With the growth of the internet and other information technologies, new data resources are becoming available that are making it possible to overcome some of these challenges. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5" target="_blank">Citizen science initiatives</a> in which volunteers use online portals to enter their observations of the natural world have become an important resource for researchers.</p><p>One such initiative, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird</a>, allows bird-watchers around the globe to share their observations from any location and time. This has produced one of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04632" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest ecological citizen-science databases in the world</a>. To date, eBird contains over 922 million bird observations compiled by over 617,000 participants.</p>
Light Pollution Both Attracts and Repels Migratory Birds<p>Migratory bird species have evolved to use certain migration routes and types of habitat, such as forests, grasslands or marshes. While humans may enjoy seeing migratory birds appear in urban areas, it's generally not good for bird populations. In addition to the many hazards that exist in urban areas, cities typically lack the food resources and cover that birds need during migration or when raising their young. As scientists, we're concerned when we see evidence that migratory birds are being drawn away from their traditional migration routes and natural habitats.</p><p>Through our analysis of eBird data, we found that cities contained the greatest numbers of migratory bird species during spring and autumn migration. Higher levels of light pollution were associated with more species during migration – evidence that light pollution attracts migratory birds to cities across the U.S. This is cause for concern, as it shows that the influence of light pollution on migratory behavior is strong enough to increase the number of species that would normally be found in urban areas.</p><p>In contrast, we found that higher levels of light pollution were associated with fewer migratory bird species during the summer and winter. This is likely due to the scarcity of suitable habitat in cities, such as large forest patches, in combination with the adverse affects of light pollution on bird behavior and health. In addition, during these seasons, migratory birds are active only during the day and their populations are largely stationary, creating few opportunities for light pollution to attract them to urban areas.</p>
Trees and Pavement<p>We found that tree canopy cover was associated with more migratory bird species during spring migration and the summer. Trees provide important habitat for migratory birds during migration and the breeding season, so the presence of trees can have a strong effect on the number of migratory bird species that occur in cities.</p><p>Finally, we found that higher levels of impervious surface were associated with more migratory bird species during the winter. This result is somewhat surprising. It could be a product of the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/heatislands" target="_blank">urban heat island effect</a> – the fact that structures and paved surfaces in cities absorb and reemit more of the sun's heat than natural surfaces. Replacing vegetation with buildings, roads and parking lots can therefore make cities significantly warmer than surrounding lands. This effect could reduce cold stress on birds and increase food resources, such as insect populations, during the winter.</p><p>Our research adds to our understanding of how conditions in cities can both help and hurt migratory bird populations. We hope that our findings will inform urban planning initiatives and strategies to reduce the harmful effects of cities on migratory birds through such measures as <a href="https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">planting more trees</a> and initiating <a href="https://aeroecolab.com/uslights" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lights-out programs</a>. Efforts to make it easier for migratory birds to complete their incredible journeys will help maintain their populations into the future.</p><p><em><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/frank-la-sorte-1191494" target="_blank">Frank La Sorte</a> is a r</span>esearch associate at the </em><em>Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kyle-horton-1191498" target="_blank">Kyle Horton</a> is an assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the Colorado State University.</em></p><p><em></em><em>Disclosure statement: Frank La Sorte receives funding from The Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DBI-1939187). K</em><em>yle Horton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/cities-can-help-migrating-birds-on-their-way-by-planting-more-trees-and-turning-lights-off-at-night-152573" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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