Canada’s governments (both provincial and federal) and their usual corporate partners-in-crime (so to speak) could learn some valuable lessons from some other countries (one in particular) about how to better address problems that inevitably arise when rivers get dammed: they can slow down and even postpone important stages of a project until the issues that concern local citizens are resolved to their satisfaction.
That’s what the builders of Indonesia’s new Jatibarang Multipurpose Dam are doing right now. Flooding of the 110-hectare reservoir was supposed to have begun on Dec. 23, but the action has been delayed for at least a month for what many in Canada’s hydroelectric industry would probably consider a silly, if not incomprehensible reason: some people who will lose their land under the soon-to-be inflowing waters do not think they have been adequately compensated. Even at this late stage, instead of ignoring the local concerns and going ahead with the impoundment as they could easily have done, the proponents in charge of the enterprise decided to try to deal fairly with the disgruntled citizens and to work out an equitable arrangement.
The Jatibarang project actually has few similarities with any such structures being built in Canada, aside from the fact that both the dam and the reservoir are about the same sizes as those being planned at Muskrat Falls, Labrador. Most significantly, the Jatibarang was not built for the sole purpose (as the Muskrat dam certainly appears to be) to enrich large corporations with fat publicly-funded contracts during the construction phase. Instead, it has at least three main purposes. The first and most important is to contain the Kreo River, which as a tributary of the Garang River often contributes to the periodically catastrophic flash floods that wash through the central Java city of Semarang. The worst of these in recent years took place during the heavy 1990 rainy season: 45 people died when the Garang violently overflowed its banks and the flood caused damage that cost around 8.5-billion Indonesian rupiah (about $750,000 Canadian at today’s exchange rate) to repair. The Jatibarang Dam is only one facet of several new flood-control measures to deal with such eventualities. After the 1990 disaster early-warning sensors were installed upstream of Semarang, drainage systems were improved within the city and the banks of the Garang were restored to a more natural state so they could better absorb excess water.
Secondly, the Jatibarang Reservoir is intended to provide a more secure source of water for agricultural and municipal users than now exists. Since the area only receives significant rainfall on a seasonal basis (mostly during the months of December and January), demands for water by the steadily increasing population in and around Semarang have begun to severely tax the ability of natural groundwater supplies to satisfy it. A gradual lowering of the water table is actually leading to a lowering of the land’s altitude as well, which in turn contributes to higher, more damaging floods during the rainy seasons.
Thirdly, almost as an afterthought, the Jatibarang Dam has been fitted with a small power generating facility that will have the capacity to produce 1.5 megawatts of electricity for local use. As well, to preserve both the cleanliness of the water and the health of the surrounding ecosystem, a “greenbelt zone” has been established around the reservoir to preserve as much forest and as many lakes and waterfalls as possible.
Million, not billion
What’s the cost of all this? Not the $10-billion or more that the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador will be forced to pay for the relatively pointless single-purpose dam now being built on the Churchill River, that’s for sure. The whole Jatibarang project has cost a mere $61M U.S. — yes, that’s million, not billion. In addition, it has actually come in on budget, unlike the Muskrat Falls project, which is already displaying the potential of significant cost overruns.
All this illustrates what is perhaps the biggest difference between the people who built this dam in Indonesia and those building the one in Labrador: attitude. In Indonesia they tried (and succeeded) to get the most value for their money. In Canada they only seem interested in getting the most money — never mind the value.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in North West River, Labrador