Tue, 02 Dec 2003

Illegal logging triggered Bahorok flood in North Sumatra: Walhi

Soon after disaster strikes Indonesia and while emotions are running high, a scapegoat is often sought, both by the government and the public. By declaring the Nov. 2, flash flood a natural disaster the government effectively washed its hands clean of its far-reaching implications. Likewise, measures to avoid similar disasters have been viewed as someone else's responsibility.

This is not unprecedented behavior. In the case of the mudslide in Pacet, Modjokerto, East Java late last year, the government blamed state-owned forestry company PT Perhutani. In the Dec. 2002 flooding in Central Nias, the residents were blamed for living in disaster-prone areas. The two disasters claimed more than 200 lives.

After the Bahorok flood, the Indonesian Environment Forum (Walhi) planned to file a lawsuit against the government, outraged by its lack of action. Walhi believed the flood was triggered by illegal logging in the nearby highlands of Gunung (mount) Leuser National Park.

"According to our findings, the flash flood was caused by a dam bursting upstream of Bahorok river." Walhi's coordinator in Medan, North Sumatra, Herwin Nasution, told The Jakarta Post recently.

Walhi activists uncovered strong evidence that the flood resulted from the incapacity of the dam to hold rainwater after three days of heavy downpour.

It is also alleged that the dam was used by illegal loggers to store logs before they were transported downstream. When the dam burst, the logs were spewed out bulldozing everything, including the houses of the three ill-fated villages. The dam was located 2,400 meters above sea level, the villages situated 120 meters above sea level. Thus, the torrent of water hit the villages at an almighty speed, activists say.

"Considering the high altitude, the thousands of logs held in the 'ready-made dump' were enough to destroy all houses in the three villages and kill many residents during the night of Nov. 2," Herwin said during a field tour with the Post in the area. Houses were buried under uprooted trees and mounds of logs, with diameters of between 50 centimeters and three meters, that had been chainsawed and stripped.

Herwin said that there were indications that deforestation had been going on for a long time. Young forests, rubber plantations and felled trees were uncovered in the national park.

Local villagers said the path of the river had altered since the 1980s.

"But, with the recent flood, the river's path had returned to normal," said a 26-year-old survivor Misnan.

He said that the forest had been logged over the last two years, but he was not sure whether the logging had been legal.

"Villagers and forest rangers have long been aware of the rampant logging activities since the logs were transported down the river after being pooled in the dam for several weeks," he said.

Amiruddin, chief of the search and rescue (SAR) unit in Bukit Lawang said he had apprehended several men suspected of illegal logging in the past, but others had escaped to the nearby oil palm plantation PT Perkebunan Sampurna Bangun.

Burhanuddin Rangkuti, the owner of Sibayak Leuser Hotel that was destroyed by the flood suffered Rp 2.8 billion in losses. He said that the first flood in Bahorok occurred in 1994 due to illegal logging in the area. At that time, more big trees had been left standing in the park and the flood had not had such a devastating impact, he said.

He added that despite the recent tragedy, illegal logging continued in the park.

The North Sumatra Meteorology and Geophysics (BMG) in Medan has ruled out climatic factors in the disaster. The rainy season, from November to January, brings massive downpour, as has always been the case, it was claimed.

On the three days prior to the disaster rainfall in the national park reached 110 millimeters daily, far higher than the average rainfall of 400 millimeters monthly.

But Firman, a staff member of BMG at Polonia airport in Medan said that this was not unusual, "It (the rainfall) has reached such a high level in the past, but it has never triggered a flash flood".

He said that prior to the flood "on our remote sensing image Bahorok showed up red, indicating heavy rain. In a one hour period, rainfall reached as high as between 400 millimeters and 100 millimeters. But in the past, similar indications had not resulted in disaster."

Firman added that, besides Bahorok, high rainfall had been reported in other areas such as Karo, Natal Mandailing and South Tapanuli but no landslides nor flooding had occurred in those regencies. -- JP