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Loss and damage

The true cost of China’s BRI projects in Indonesia

Author: Leo Galuh

Indonesia is supporting China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) foreign policy by constructing a 142km high-speed railway from Jakarta to Bandung. But the human rights violations and pollution rates associated with the project stand in sharp contrast to the country's pledges at COP27.

©Airlangga Jati

Four women sat in a small blue tent near a construction site in Jakarta’s West Java province. The quartet had been waiting to move into their new homes for a few days, which were being built by the construction company Synohidro, a business partner of the Jakarta-based consortium company Kereta Cepat Indonesia China (KCIC), also known as the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway (HSR). 

Before losing their homes to the project, the women used to live in the Jatiluhur district of Purwakarta regency in West Java Province for over a decade. Nonetheless, the 142-kilometer HSR project has caused immense disturbances to their lives since the joint venture company constructed a railroad less than 100 metres from their homes under China’s Belt and Road project with Indonesia.

"My house collapsed and almost fell on my children," Yeni Yuliati, 35, told FairPlanet. She recalled that construction near her residence began around 2019, and claimed that the tunnel construction destroyed 11 homes, including her three siblings’.

Yuliati further told FairPlanet that she and some of the residents obstructed the construction of the railroad tunnel in October, and that this wasn't her first time joining a mass protests against the national project. Protesters demanded that KCIC compensate them for their loss.

A day after the October demonstration, KCIC committed to repairing the residents’ houses, according to the company’s press release. The company also offered 2 million IDR (USD $134) for 11 residents to rent a room or a house in the Purwakarta regency, the release further read.

Yuliati, on the other hand, explained that prior to the announcement, KCIC only paid them 1 million IDR (USD $67) for damages. As an unemployed single parent, Yuliati said that amount is insufficient to feed her three children. 

Furthermore, she couldn’t hide her dissatisfaction with the house that was being built for her. The company failed to meet its promise to complete the residents’ homes by February 2022.

"I feel unsafe with the new house since our land [is located] too close to the tunnel," Yuliati said. She also mentioned that there was no landslide risk prior to the HSR construction. Nonetheless, she and other residents are concerned that a landslide will destroy their home during the rainy season.

Yuliati and her three siblings still have no indication of when they will be able to move into their new homes.

Meanwhile, Heru Sutanto, 52, has been forced to sleep in the living room with his family because KCIC detonations cracked the wall of his bedroom. In September 2019, the company carried out eight blasts in order to build a railroad tunnel in Bohong Mountain, Padalarang District in the West Bandung regency of West Java province.

" [KCIC] did not let us know that the company wanted to make a hole in the mountain," Sutanto told FairPlanet. At least 500 people live in 120 houses in the housing compound. Several residents left to other cities after their walls cracked and land subsidence occurred, according to Sutanto.

"[The] KCIC construction project has disadvantaged my life and neighbours'," Sutanto said. He added that the natural water volume decreases soon after the detonations.

Sutanto showed FairPlanet the water pump at his house. The water appears brown in colour due to the soil content. Furthermore, the water debit in the residents well has decreased, Sutanto added.

"As a leader in this community, I have to distribute water to people's houses fairly," Sutanto sighed, adding that neither KCIC nor the local government had compensated him as of this reporting. 

Mirza Soraya, KCIC's corporate secretary, claimed that environmental mitigation measures become very important during the planning stage. A local publication quoted him saying that developing a tunnel is a more environmentally friendly construction and infrastructure option than cutting or splitting hills. This is due to the fact that the tunnel's top can be used as a green open area, which benefits the environment and ecology.

Railway projects likely require more coal-generated power

HSR is frequently promoted as a more environmentally friendly alternative to air travel. As a result, numerous initiatives for the construction of new HSR infrastructure are currently being pursued throughout Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia. 

The Chinese government launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), previously known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), in 2013. This global infrastructure development initiative was worth USD $28.4 billion between January to June this year, down 40 percent from 2019, according to the South China Morning Post.

Indonesia is one of China’s BRI partners. KCIC, a joint venture between an Indonesian consortium of four state-owned companies and China Railway International Co. Ltd, said the high-speed train construction was 85 percent complete in July. The 142-kilometer railroad will be the first in Southeast Asia capable of handling trains travelling at a speed of up to 350 kilometres per hour. 

This vehicle will cut travel time between the country’s capital, Jakarta, and West Java’s provincial capital, Bandung, from more than three hours to just 40 minutes. This project is said to be worth USD $7.8 billion

However, Indonesia depends on coal to generate electricity from coal-fired power plants. Indonesia’s state-owned electricity company PLN consumed 68.4 million tonnes of coal in 2021, according to statistics by PLN. The number increased compared to 2020 consumption rates, which reach 66.6 million tonnes of coal. 

The PLN statistics also indicated that Indonesia has 6,143 power plants across the country, 85 percent of which are diesel-powered and 254 of which are coal-powered. Meanwhile, there are only 18 units and 15 units of Indonesian geothermal-fired and solar-fired power plants, as per the PLN statistics.

According to Andri Prasetiyo, a researcher at Trend Asia, an NGO that accelerate energy transformation and sustainable development in Asia, said that KCIC may need more electricity in order to operate their train, station or office. It is estimated that the company's electricity demand stands at around 75 to 100 megawatts, he added.

"KCIC is still considering whether they want to build their own coal-fired power plants or buy electricity from PLN," Prasetiyo told FairPlanet. He said that the company is deliberating on whether or not it wants to build new plants as they would have to allocate more budget for societal costs and risks associated with coal consumption. 

The PLN has announced that the state-owned company is on the right track to complete the target of providing four 150KV high-voltage traction supplies and will be finished by June 2023, totalling 260 mega volt ampere, according to a PLN release.

However, KCIC may absorb the state’s electricity oversupply by buying it from PLN, Prasetiyo said. Otherwise, the carbon emission may worsen air pollution in megacities if KCIC would build a new power plant, he noted. 

© Ivan Samudra 

More renewable energy sources needed

Indonesia's economic minister Airlangga Hartarto told Reuters in October this year that the government has set a new target of reducing emissions by 31.89 percent on its own or 43.2 percent with international assistance by 2030. Previously, the Indonesian government set a target of 29 percent or 41 percent with international support.

Nevertheless, Prasetiyo is sceptical that Indonesia will meet its own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), since the government has made no progress in reducing carbon emissions in the energy sector.

The government still aims to build more coal-fired power plants rather than invest state funds in renewable energy, Prasetiyo said.

The research by Trend Asia demonstrates that the country's average annual renewable energy addition is 0.8 percent, while the government set a target of using 25 percent of renewable energy in its mix by 2025. The country should reach 12 percent of renewable energy addition in the next three years to meet the goal, Prasetiyo added.

"Extraordinary policy is needed to cut the carbon emissions in generating electricity," Prasetiyo told FairPlanet. 

Prasetiyo also advised the government to halt the construction of new coal-fired power plants, noting that the government policy introducing gas as a bridging fuel to energy transition may impede the renewable energy target. Rather, Prasetiyo maintains, the Indonesian government should build power plants from renewable sources such as geothermal, solar or wind.

He added that renewable energy is less expensive and less volatile in the face of external factors such as economic upheavals. He noted that storage is unquestionably required to store renewable energy and electricity.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reported nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the wind, solar and other renewables that came online in 2020 were cheaper than the cheapest new fossil fuel.

"The distribution chain can be slimmer if renewable energy power plants are built in the location," Prasetiyo added. But the government, he said, sighing heavily, still does not see this as an option.

Yet in his remarks at COP27 in Egypt, Indonesia's Vice President Ma'ruf Amin emphasised that the government had also launched the Country Platform for Energy Transition Mechanism, and that its actions must be backed up by clear international support.

"In a crisis situation like this, there Is no other choice but to cooperate. We must put forward the collaboration paradigm," Amin noted.

Image by Indira Tjokorda.