An important project for the island of Lembongan is likely to lead to more harm than good. The deployment of a submarine electricity cable from Bali has resulted in various accidents, seriously damaging the pristine and precious coral reefs of the island.
This is another example of infrastructure developed without any attention to the environment. A submarine cable connecting mainland Bali with the small island of Nusa Lembongan has been deployed in the month of March, aiming to guarantee a continuous supply of electricity to the island’s inhabitants, providing an additional 20 megawatts where demand is growing, as an emerging tourist destination. Black-outs due to failures in the electrical system were very frequent until recently on the island.
Unfortunately, the decision made by PLN (Perusahan Listrik Negara – Indonesia’s National Electricity Company) and the Government was to pass this cable exactly on top of one of the most pristine coral reef areas of Nusa Lembongan, “Mangrove Point” – a very popular destination for tourists coming to snorkel or dive in the area.
The captain of the tug boat “Sibang 29” which was involved in the process was unaware of the damage he caused, blaming it on a strong current in the area. The boat was grounded on a shallow area of the reef and severely damaged an area of about 1,000 m2. A large number of coral species have been destroyed, and with this all the associated fauna, fish and invertebrates that reach one of the highest points of biodiversity in Bali. The grounded area, known as “Blue Corner”, is one of the most popular dive-sites worldwide, known as “the fastest drift dive in the world”, where experienced divers can enjoy wonderful encounters with giant sunfish (Mola mola), sharks and other big fishes, and (until now) a pristine and untouched coral reef.
At the same time, a large barge, BG Sumber Jaya 38, carrying the electrical cable, anchored on the coral reef of Mangrove point, leaving even more extensive damage. Due to the intensity of the current, the anchors were dragged damaging an area of reef of approximately 3,000 m2 (corresponding to three different anchor drag areas, and one anchor has been abandoned on the reef).
Unfortunately the story does not end here. The cable deployment has not been completed yet, and the impact of the cable is expected to be even bigger that the other two accidents. A marine cable has been laid across vast sections of pristine coral, and a second (backup) cable will be deployed in the near future.
A team of biologists and divers of the CTC (Coral Triangle Center) have reported the incident to the authorities, receiving mixed reactions. The head of Jungut Batu Village, Ketut Gunarsa, has declared that, “the natural condition of the heavy ocean current forced these accidents. There will always be something sacrificed for the larger benefit of others”, and, anyway, “the coral reef mostly benefited the dive operators and not the local residents”.
Even ignoring that Nusa Lembongan residents compose 95% of the workforce of the dive operators, and that many dive centers or snorkeling operators are locally owned, the cascading effect on all the other touristic activities (restaurants, hotels, cafes, etc.) could be serious. Tourists are the major source of income for villagers of Nusa Lembongan. Permitting such extensive damage on the primary resource of the island will cause much more damage than benefits coming from a continuous supply of electricity. Based on trip data for 2012, approximately 10,000 guests per year visit these reefs, bringing in approximately 3,493,350,000 IDR annually to the Lembongan economy through Lembongan island-based dive and snorkeling operators alone. If mainland Bali-based operators are then added to this figure, the economic value of this particular reef is incredibly high.
These considerations are from a simple “economic” point of view. The biological damage and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem’s health are even more important, but quite often this is a factor unconsidered. Jungut Batu already suffers dramatic coastal erosion, with a large area of the beach already vanished because of the building of hotels and restaurants too close to the water line. As many of the serious environmental problems that affect Bali, words like “environmental protection” and “sustainable development” seems to be sacrificed daily on the altar of money.
The electricity cable project cost has been estimated to be around 135 billion IDR (US$13.8 million) and includes an Environmental Impact Assessment conducted by the Udayana University of Bali, approved by the local Government. I’m wondering if, spending some more money, the cable could have been deployed in an area where the coral reef is not so precious.
So, what’s next? The protection of an incredible ecosystem like the Lembongan reefs, unique in the world for their biological richness and abundance should be on the top of the agenda of every forward-thinking politician. Without these reefs, Lembongan will lose all the attractiveness that brings thousands of tourists to the island.
Environmentalists, local residents, and Balinese people in general should be very worried about the loss of touristic incomes caused by this project. Having a lot of electricity makes no sense if all your hotels are empty and the guests will decide that Nusa Lembongan is not worth a visit. A second back-up cable is going to be deployed, with a risk that the damage may be (at minimum) double to the previous cable. PLN and the Bali Government should guarantee not only a different approach to the cable issue, but even a will of repairing the damage produced, funding projects of coral restoration, including substrate stabilization, minimizing erosion, encouraging larval settlement and coral transplantation, and an extensive monitoring of restoration efforts.
People and technologies are available directly on the island. Let’s see if somebody will try to do something or if it will remain another example of good intentions, but very bad execution.