A China-backed dam in Indonesia threatens a rare great ape – and that's just the tip of the iceberg

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Friday, December 2, 2022

James Askew/SOCP handoutIn 2017, scientists described a new species of great apes – the Tapanuli orangutan. The species, found in the Batang Toru ecosystem of North Sumatara, Indonesia was listed as critically endangered soon after. The population of the species has declined by 83% over the past 75 years, largely due to hunting and habitat loss. Just 800 Tapanuli orangutans remain – and their last known habitat is threatened by a slew of infrastructure projects. Chief among them is the Chinese-funded Batang Toru hydropower dam, which threatens to fragment and submerge a large chunk of the orangutan’s habitat. The project is just one of a staggering 49 hydropower dams China is funding: mostly across Southeast Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America. In new research, my colleagues and I show the substantial risk to biodiversity posed by the sheer number of Chinese-funded dams. And yet, environmental regulation of these projects has serious flaws. China is funding 49 overseas hydropower dams, including on Pakistan’s Indus River, pictured. www.diamerbhasha.com Big dams, big risks Hydropower is expected to be an important part of the global renewable energy transition. But the technology brings environmental risks. Dams disrupt the flow of rivers, altering species’ habitat. And dam reservoirs inundate and fragment habitats on land. Traditionally, financing of hydropower projects in low-income countries was the preserve of Western-backed multilateral development banks. China has now emerged as the biggest international financier of hydropower under its overseas infrastructure investment program, the Belt and Road Initiative. Yet little is known about the scale of China’s hydropower financing or the biodiversity risks it brings. Whether adequate safeguards are applied to the projects by Chinese and host country regulators is also poorly understood. Our research attempted to remedy this. We found China is funding 49 hydropower dams in 18 countries including Myanmar, Laos and Pakistan. The dams are likely to impede the flow of 14 free-flowing rivers, imperilling the species they harbour. The first dam on a free-flowing river is akin to the proverbial “first cut” of a road into an intact forest ecosystem, causing disproportionate harms to biodiversity. We also found Chinese-funded dams overlap with the geographic ranges of 12 critically endangered freshwater fish species, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish and the world’s largest carp species, the Giant Barb. The dams exacerbate the threats to these species and may push them closer to extinction. Almost 135 square kilometres of critical habitat on land is also likely to be inundated and fragmented by the dams and their reservoirs. Read more: The hydropower industry is talking the talk. But fine words won't save our last wild rivers Chinese-funded dams overlap with the geographic ranges of the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish. Zeb Hogan/EPA Lax environmental rules Despite the biodiversity risks, we found serious gaps in the environmental rules applied to Chinese-funded dams. A previous analysis found six Chinese state-owned banks – which together contribute most financing for Belt and Road projects – had no safeguard standards to limit biodiversity damage. Complementing this analysis, our investigation found Chinese regulators also did not require hydropower projects to mitigate environmental damage. Some regulator policies, however, contained non-binding guidelines. A number of Chinese government policies defer to host country laws on environmental protection. But our investigation found in most countries where the dams are being built, regulation to limit environmental harms was absent or still developing. This poor governance leaves species and ecosystems in these countries vulnerable to environmental damage from dams. A spotlight on Sumatra The Batang Toru dam aims to bolster North Sumatra’s energy supplies. Its proponents say the dam uses environmentally-friendly technology that requires only a small area to be flooded. Two multilateral development banks, however, distanced themselves from the project after concerns were raised about potential impact on the Tapanuli orangutan. The Chinese state-owned Bank of China also withdrew its finance offer after international protests. Chinese financier SDIC Power Holdings then stepped in to fund it. Habitat destruction has confined the few remaining Tapanuli orangutans to a fragmented 1,400 square kilometre tract of rainforest in North Sumatra. Scientists say the Batang Toru dam further threatens this habitat. Constructing the dam requires digging a tunnel in an area where most Tapanuli orangutans live. Experts also say the project will permanently isolate sub-populations of the species, increasing the risk of extinction. The case illustrates the potential destruction hydropower projects can cause in the absence of appropriate planning and safeguards. Read more: Orangutans: could 'half-Earth' conservation save the red ape? The Batang Toru dam aims to bolster North Sumatra’s energy supplies. Pictured: a house on a riverbank near the project. EPA/DEDI SINUHAJI Need for holistic planning The sheer number of Chinese-funded dams presents significant biodiversity risks. It also presents an opportunity. China is funding several hydropower projects in single river basins. This puts it in an advantageous position to carry out “basin-scale planning”. This involves making decisions about dams not based solely on an individual project, but by considering it in the context of other projects within the basin, as well as in the broader context of communities and the environment. This type of planning also means dams can be configured to have the least impact on critically endangered species, and other irreplaceable and vulnerable biodiversity elements. Such “system scale” planning is a key recommendation of international initiatives such as the World Commission on Dams and the European Union’s Water Framework Directive. It also involves determining whether a proposed dam is the best way to meet energy needs, or if alternatives – such as wind or solar – could do so with lower environmental risks. In the case of the Batang Toru dam, a 2020 report by a leading international consulting firm found the dam would not “materially improve access to nor the regularity of power supply” in North Sumatra, which in fact had a power surplus. Given the huge damage dams can cause to biodiversity, it is crucial that only those dams that are really needed get built – and any associated damage is minimised. The many Chinese-funded dams on the horizon must undergo rigorous vetting if serious biodiversity damage is to be averted. Read more: Why conservation areas are not living up to their potential in Indonesia Divya Narain does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

The sheer number of Chinese-funded dams pose a substantial risk to biodiversity. And yet, environmental regulation of these projects has serious flaws.

James Askew/SOCP handout

In 2017, scientists described a new species of great apes – the Tapanuli orangutan. The species, found in the Batang Toru ecosystem of North Sumatara, Indonesia was listed as critically endangered soon after.

The population of the species has declined by 83% over the past 75 years, largely due to hunting and habitat loss. Just 800 Tapanuli orangutans remain – and their last known habitat is threatened by a slew of infrastructure projects.

Chief among them is the Chinese-funded Batang Toru hydropower dam, which threatens to fragment and submerge a large chunk of the orangutan’s habitat. The project is just one of a staggering 49 hydropower dams China is funding: mostly across Southeast Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America.

In new research, my colleagues and I show the substantial risk to biodiversity posed by the sheer number of Chinese-funded dams. And yet, environmental regulation of these projects has serious flaws.

A river in mountain landscape
China is funding 49 overseas hydropower dams, including on Pakistan’s Indus River, pictured. www.diamerbhasha.com

Big dams, big risks

Hydropower is expected to be an important part of the global renewable energy transition. But the technology brings environmental risks. Dams disrupt the flow of rivers, altering species’ habitat. And dam reservoirs inundate and fragment habitats on land.

Traditionally, financing of hydropower projects in low-income countries was the preserve of Western-backed multilateral development banks. China has now emerged as the biggest international financier of hydropower under its overseas infrastructure investment program, the Belt and Road Initiative.

Yet little is known about the scale of China’s hydropower financing or the biodiversity risks it brings. Whether adequate safeguards are applied to the projects by Chinese and host country regulators is also poorly understood. Our research attempted to remedy this.

We found China is funding 49 hydropower dams in 18 countries including Myanmar, Laos and Pakistan.

The dams are likely to impede the flow of 14 free-flowing rivers, imperilling the species they harbour. The first dam on a free-flowing river is akin to the proverbial “first cut” of a road into an intact forest ecosystem, causing disproportionate harms to biodiversity.

We also found Chinese-funded dams overlap with the geographic ranges of 12 critically endangered freshwater fish species, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish and the world’s largest carp species, the Giant Barb. The dams exacerbate the threats to these species and may push them closer to extinction.

Almost 135 square kilometres of critical habitat on land is also likely to be inundated and fragmented by the dams and their reservoirs.


Read more: The hydropower industry is talking the talk. But fine words won't save our last wild rivers


man looks at giant catfish
Chinese-funded dams overlap with the geographic ranges of the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish. Zeb Hogan/EPA

Lax environmental rules

Despite the biodiversity risks, we found serious gaps in the environmental rules applied to Chinese-funded dams.

A previous analysis found six Chinese state-owned banks – which together contribute most financing for Belt and Road projects – had no safeguard standards to limit biodiversity damage.

Complementing this analysis, our investigation found Chinese regulators also did not require hydropower projects to mitigate environmental damage. Some regulator policies, however, contained non-binding guidelines.

A number of Chinese government policies defer to host country laws on environmental protection. But our investigation found in most countries where the dams are being built, regulation to limit environmental harms was absent or still developing.

This poor governance leaves species and ecosystems in these countries vulnerable to environmental damage from dams.

A spotlight on Sumatra

The Batang Toru dam aims to bolster North Sumatra’s energy supplies. Its proponents say the dam uses environmentally-friendly technology that requires only a small area to be flooded.

Two multilateral development banks, however, distanced themselves from the project after concerns were raised about potential impact on the Tapanuli orangutan. The Chinese state-owned Bank of China also withdrew its finance offer after international protests. Chinese financier SDIC Power Holdings then stepped in to fund it.

Habitat destruction has confined the few remaining Tapanuli orangutans to a fragmented 1,400 square kilometre tract of rainforest in North Sumatra. Scientists say the Batang Toru dam further threatens this habitat.

Constructing the dam requires digging a tunnel in an area where most Tapanuli orangutans live. Experts also say the project will permanently isolate sub-populations of the species, increasing the risk of extinction.

The case illustrates the potential destruction hydropower projects can cause in the absence of appropriate planning and safeguards.


Read more: Orangutans: could 'half-Earth' conservation save the red ape?


small house on riverbank at night
The Batang Toru dam aims to bolster North Sumatra’s energy supplies. Pictured: a house on a riverbank near the project. EPA/DEDI SINUHAJI

Need for holistic planning

The sheer number of Chinese-funded dams presents significant biodiversity risks. It also presents an opportunity.

China is funding several hydropower projects in single river basins. This puts it in an advantageous position to carry out “basin-scale planning”.

This involves making decisions about dams not based solely on an individual project, but by considering it in the context of other projects within the basin, as well as in the broader context of communities and the environment.

This type of planning also means dams can be configured to have the least impact on critically endangered species, and other irreplaceable and vulnerable biodiversity elements.

Such “system scale” planning is a key recommendation of international initiatives such as the World Commission on Dams and the European Union’s Water Framework Directive.

It also involves determining whether a proposed dam is the best way to meet energy needs, or if alternatives – such as wind or solar – could do so with lower environmental risks.

In the case of the Batang Toru dam, a 2020 report by a leading international consulting firm found the dam would not “materially improve access to nor the regularity of power supply” in North Sumatra, which in fact had a power surplus.

Given the huge damage dams can cause to biodiversity, it is crucial that only those dams that are really needed get built – and any associated damage is minimised.

The many Chinese-funded dams on the horizon must undergo rigorous vetting if serious biodiversity damage is to be averted.


Read more: Why conservation areas are not living up to their potential in Indonesia


The Conversation

Divya Narain does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read the full story here.
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30×30 is conservation’s flashy new goal. Now countries need to figure out what it actually means.

The new global target aims to protect 30 percent of land and waters. But is it a powerful goal or an empty slogan?

Last month, right before the holidays, nearly 200 countries announced a breakthrough deal to protect Earth’s plants and animals. Of the 22 targets established at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP15, one stood out: an agreement to conserve 30 percent of land and seas by the year 2030.  The goal, commonly known as 30×30, has been around for a few years, slowly gaining traction in environmental circles since it was first proposed in the journal Science Advances in 2019. It draws inspiration from research by famed biologist E.O. Wilson that at least half the planet needs to be conserved in some way to protect 80 percent of species. The formal adoption of 30×30 by nearly all of the world’s governments at COP15 turned it into the official guiding star for the global conservation movement, with some leaders comparing it to the Paris Agreement in terms of significance. Now, with negotiators at home and a new year underway, countries face the monumental task of figuring out what one of the most ambitious goals in conservation history actually means, in practice.One of the toughest questions yet to be answered is: What exactly counts towards the 30 percent? Can certain conservation-minded agricultural methods that protect soil and promote a diversity of crops be included, or do only strictly protected areas like national parks count? To what degree will Indigenous territories be considered conserved land? And how will areas that connect fragments and contain the rarest, most species-rich ecosystems be prioritized under the goal? The final language in last month’s global agreement was vague on many of these topics. “Underneath that [30×30] number is a huge amount of complexity,” said Claire Kremen, a conservation biology professor at the University of British Columbia who researches how to reconcile biodiversity conservation with agriculture. “It all depends on where and how you do this protection and there hasn’t been a lot of clarity on these points.” The United States, while not technically part of last month’s global pact (the Senate since 1993 has refused to join the biodiversity convention), has been wrestling with these same questions independently. President Biden committed to the 30×30 goal within U.S. borders via executive order during his first week in office. And many states have also committed to the target, including California, Maine, New York, Hawaii, and New Mexico.  Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is a national park in northern Alaska. Sean Tevebaugh, National Park Service Just as negotiators at COP15 struggled to come to an agreement about what types of ecosystems and actions should count towards the global goal, the U.S. government has yet to define what “conserved” land and sea means under 30×30.  Currently, the U.S. has a variety of different protected area designations that are regulated in different ways. Most federal land, which makes up 27 percent of the country, is managed under some form of conservation, be it national parks and wilderness areas or, more commonly, a “mixed-use” mandate that allows for what the government determines to be sustainable levels of extractive activities like forestry and grazing. Add state parks and private land under conservation easements to the mix, and we’ve easily already met the 30 percent target, says Forrest Fleischman, a professor of environmental policy and forest governance at the University of Minnesota. But most 30×30 advocates don’t think that all those lands should count towards the target, whose main goal is to protect biodiversity. While the U.S. Geological Survey’s Protected Area Database considers more than 31 percent of the country’s land under some form of protection, only 13 percent has strict mandates for biodiversity protection that don’t allow for any extractive activity.  “There’s habitat value to be found in all sorts of lands,” said Helen O’Shea, an expert on land-use and conservation issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “but the 30×30 effort is about creating a system that’s protected and ecologically representative. A connected system that’s going to link up areas that are solely being looked at for conservation purposes.”  For others, however, the answer isn’t as simple as just increasing the amount of land under strict protection. “If the goal is to move another 17 percent of the U.S. into something equivalent to a national forest or wilderness area, that seems unrealistic,” said Fleischman, who is part of group of experts working to understand the social implications of 30×30, funded by the Science for Nature and People Partnership.  When the 30×30 goal was first announced in the U.S., it received significant pushback from ranching communities and private landowners, who were concerned about impacts to rural economies like grazing and logging. Many also argued that certain productive land uses, especially when planned with biodiversity in mind, are compatible with conservation of species and ecosystems. While the white spotted owl can’t live in logged forests of the Pacific Northwest, for example, open grazing helps to maintain prairie habitats. Some grassland birds also thrive in the early successional forests that grow after timber harvest.  “It’s a very complicated, site-specific issue,” said Tom Cors, director of U.S. government relations for The Nature Conservancy. “Some places might have adequate ‘protection,’ but they need more management,” he added, referencing the need to conduct more prescribed burning to support ecosystem function in Western forests. Mixed variety cover crops on a farm near St. John, Washington protect and enrich the soil. VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Globally, the most significant critique of the 30×30 initiative has come from Indigenous peoples, who warn that the protected area conservation model has allowed governments and nonprofit groups to seize control of natural resources and, in many cases, violently remove Indigenous peoples from their lands, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Nepal to Peru. Tribes in the U.S. that have historically been excluded from conservation planning, decision-making, and funding wanted to make sure the country’s 30×30 goal didn’t repeat these patterns. In an effort to address those concerns, the Biden administration framed its 30×30 pledge as a “collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation,” with topline goals of honoring tribal sovereignty, supporting the priorities of tribal nations, respecting private property rights, and supporting the voluntary efforts of landowners, all with science as a guide. A May 2021 report from the Department of the Interior emphasized the concept of “conservation” rather than “protection,” “recognizing that many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems.”  An interagency working group is trying to account for different types of land uses while building the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, a tool to represent the amount and types of lands and waters that are currently conserved or restored. Part of the group’s mandate is to figure out how contributions from farmers, ranchers, and forest owners, as well as the conservation strategies of Tribal Nations, will count toward the 30×30 goal. A December 2021 progress report did not include a number for how much land and water is currently managed for conservation; in an email to Grist, a Department of the Interior, or DOI, spokesperson had no updates on the Atlas timeline.  Beyond “what actions count,” land managers are also thinking about “which lands and waters should be protected?” towards the 30-percent target. Biodiversity tends to be concentrated in certain areas and ecosystem types, so where land protection happens is important. In its comments on the Atlas, The Nature Conservancy recommended distributing conserved areas among 68 ecoregions of the U.S. — the Central Appalachians, Northern tallgrass prairie, and California central coast, for example — and protecting 30 percent of each. In the U.S., it’s private lands that contain most of the country’s biodiversity; these also play a role in connecting protected areas, which conservation groups have emphasized as an important priority for the Atlas, as habitat connectivity has been shown to be critical for species’ survival. In addition, the Biden administration wants the tool to promote equity, increasing access to nature in historically marginalized communities, often in urban areas. Yet as the DOI itself notes, “there is no single metric — including a percentage target — that could fully measure progress toward the fulfillment of those interrelated goals [of doing better for people, for fish and wildlife, and for the planet].” The 30×30 target established at the U.N. biodiversity conference is global, meaning that countries can sign onto it without necessarily committing to conserve 30-percent of land and waters within their borders. Still, many countries have issued their own 30×30 commitments, including Canada, Australia, Costa Rica, and France. The United Kingdom has been criticized for claiming to protect 28 percent of its land when the included national parks and “areas of outstanding natural beauty” fail to address poor farming practices, pollution, and invasive species. In July, Colombia announced that it had already met the target for land and sea. The final agreement reached at COP15 nodded to the inclusion of working lands and the importance of protecting ecologically-representative and high-biodiversity habitats, without setting clear guidelines. It “recognized and respected” the rights of Indigenous peoples, who steward 80% of the world’s biodiversity on their lands, without establishing their territories as a specific category of conserved area, leaving them vulnerable to human rights violations.  For Fleischman, having a “political slogan” without a clear meaning isn’t necessarily helpful for achieving biodiversity and environmental justice goals. “Advocates say, ‘Look beyond the numeric spatial target at the language which is about finding ways to pursue conservation at a whole landscape level while taking into account social equity issues such as [urban] parks,’” he said. “But if that’s the case, what is the point of saying ‘30 x 30’? ‘Healthy nature everywhere’ might be a better goal.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline 30×30 is conservation’s flashy new goal. Now countries need to figure out what it actually means. on Jan 9, 2023.

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