Dams, Dam Lies and Corruption

mamberamo-urumukaThe former Governor of Papua Province, Barnabas Suebu, was charged with corruption on Tuesday (5/8), with accusations relating to funds allocated for an engineering study into a controversial dam in West Papua. Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which was investigating the case, claimed that the state had lost out to the tune of 36 billion Rupiah.

The former governor was accused of abusing his authority in appointing subcontractors to carry out studies into the dam. He is alleged to have links with one of the companies appointed, PT Konsultasi Pembangunan Irian Jaya (PT KPIJ). The executive director of that company and the former head of the Papua Provincial Mining and Energy Office were also charged.

This will be no great surprise to many in Papua as accusations of corruption connected to dam projects in Papua have been circulating for a few years already. Papuan newsletter Tabloid Jubi explained on Tuesday that large sums of money had been allocated from the provincial budget in 2009 and 2010 for ‘Detailed Engineering Design’ studies for dams on the Mamboramo River, in the northern part of Papua, and Umumuka River (or Yawei River as it is known in its upper reaches), which flows from lake Paniai in the highlands to the coast near Timika.

Once the studies were finished, the Jubi article explains, experts from the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology judged the results to be too general, insufficiently focussed on establishing the desired objectives and containing inappropriate or incomplete reports. The output of the studies could not be used to put the projects out to tender. The final report for stage one of the Mamberamo project consisted only of images of the basic plan for the Urumuka Hydropower station (yes you did read that correctly, not the Mamberamo project). The experts concluded that PT KPIJ and PT GA which had carried out the studies did not deserve to be paid.

That issue is now in the hands of the justice system. But what about the dams in question? Are they realistically likely to go ahead, or are they just an excuse for top officials to steal state funds with the excuse of planning a mega project?

Both the Mamberamo and the Urumuka dams would be highly destructive if they ever did get built. The Mamberamo river drains most of West Papua that lies north of the Central Mountains. Unbridged, and with only a few villages along its banks as it meanders for 670 kilometers through the rainforest, it is almost certainly the wildest river in the whole of Asia. It goes without saying that a dam would be an ecological catastrophe.

There have been plans to dam the Mamberamo River since the mid 1990s, but those plans have never advanced very far. The 1998 economic crisis was probably one reason for this, and now it seems as if corruption may have been another.

The Urumuka dam would be on a much smaller scale, but still has the potential to be quite destructive. In addition to the ecological impacts, it is almost inevitable that such an intrusive development would bring severe problems in an area which is prone to conflict, displacing people and bringing more security forces to the area. Indigenous voices from the Mee people who live in the affected area have made their opposition clear.

It is not entirely clear how serious the plans are for this hydropower project. Several names of Chinese companies have appeared in press and blog articles connected to the Urumuka project over the last few years, but we have not been able to confirm any concrete commitments by private investors. It was also reported in 2011 that Freeport would use 200MW of the project’s 300MW generating capacity, and in 2013 that consultants owned by Freeport had conducted a new detailed engineering study, possibly making up for the shortfalls in the previous government-sponsored study.

News media widely reported an announcement in February 2013 by Papuan provincial government expert staff Agus Sumule that it was hoped that the government would soon be able to agree the Environmental Impact Assessment report (AMDAL) for the project. The plan is also listed as an infrastructure project under the auspices of the Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s Economic Development (MP3EI) which usually means that the government will make every effort to support the project.

The most recent news concerning both dam projects emerged just over a month ago, when Papuan media (Jubi 1 and CePos) reported from an coordinating meeting on investment planning which took place in Jayapura on June 18th 2014 . In this meeting the government presented plans for two new Green Economy Zones on the western shore of Lake Sentani near Jayapura and in Mimika, in addition to the existing Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate.

The meeting in the Aston Hotel explained that the Mimika Zone will encompass the Urumuka dam and a cement factory using tailings from the Freeport mine. No explanation was given of the industry which would be developed at the Binggran (or Bonggrang) site near lake Sentani, but the electricity source would be the Mamberamo Hydroelectric Project.

It is hard so see what could possibly be described as ‘Green’ in these ‘Green Economy Zones’. Large hydro schemes have been roundly discredited as an ecologically sustainable energy source, including by the World Commission on Dams, which was set up by the World Bank and IUCN in 1997.

Alternatively, the vast amounts of energy generated by dams on the Mamberamo River (the hydro potential of the watershed has been estimated at 10,476MW) could be used by the aluminium industry, which needs huge amounts of electricity to process bauxite into aluminium. In November last year, Agus Sugiyono of Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology wrote a paper examining the viability of using power from the Mamberamo project to power an aluminium smelter based in Sarmi. Mr Sugiyono is a long-term advocate of the Mamboramo dam, who has been promoting the plan since at least 2007.

In summary, although neither the Mamboramo nor the Urumuka projects appears to have gained sufficient traction for work to start in the near future, both remain as real threats to Papuan indigenous people and forests. Ironically, corrupt local politicians who are alleged to have made money on the back of expensive and useless studies may have wasted state money, but their actions have also probably helped to put the brakes on the mania for inappropriate industrial development that continues to be imposed on Papua, largely against the wishes of indigenous Papuans.


  1. Here is a translation of Jubi’s report from the meeting on June 18th:

    Jayapura and Mimika to be Green Economy Zones

    http://tabloidjubi.com/2014/06/19/jayapura-dan-mimika-ditetapkan-sebagai-kawasan-ekonomi-hijau/

    Aside from the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate the Papuan Provincial Government will establish two more green economy districts, in Binggran in Jayapura and in Mimika.

    “The establishment of these green economy districts is being prepared to maximise industrial activity, exports, imports and other high-value economic activity” said the second assistent regional secretary for Papua, Elia Loupatty, speaking for Papua Governor Lukus Enembe when opening an investment planning coordinating meeting in the Hotel Aston in Jayapura, Papua on Wednesday 18th June.

    According to Elia, these green economy zones would be pro-environment and would aim to accelerate regional development and be a model for how industrial development, tourism and trade could penetrate the area, creating new jobs.

    “To form these green zones sufficient infrastructure will be needed, including environmentally-friendly energy,” he said.

    Alongside this, it would be in accordance with one of the key missions to develop Papua, the acceleration of infrastructure development and connectivity between different zones and regions whilst promoting principles of sustainable development

    To that end, Elia said, the government is currently continuing to build a toll-road quality ring road from Jayapura to Sentani. “Meanwhile with money from the national budget we are widening Sentani Airport and increasing facilities at Sentani Airport so that it can be used by wide-bodied aircraft by day or night-time. All of this is in the final stages of being built, “ he said.

    Meanwhile in the energy sector, he continued, the Urumuka Hydroelectric power station has been planned which would be located across four regencies, Mimika, Deyai, Dogiyai and Paniai to support the Mimika green ekonomi zone.

    Meanwhile for the Bonggrang green economy zone, plans have been drawn up to build hydroelectric power stations on the Mamboramo river. “And in order to make use of mine tailings for the cement industry in Mimika Region a MoU hs been signed with PT Freeport Indonesia to meet Papua’s cement needs”, he said.

    Elia made clear that the challenges they would face in developing investment and increasing investment appeal in Papua were no small matter. “However, the rich and abundant natural resources can bring confidence and optimism, that the land of Papua will bring opportunities for businesses and investors to invest with enthusiasm and as broadly as possible in Papua”, he said.

    At the same event the head of Papua Province investment agency, John Way said that he strongly supported the governor’s policy to develop Papua as self-reliant, moving forwards and secure, by preparing capable human resources.

    “we are ready to launch programs according to the governor’s vision and mission of Papua as moving forwards, self-reliant and secure. What’s more Papua has abundant natural resources. For that reason, we invite investors to invest their assets in Papua,” said John Way.  

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