20th Century thinking will sacrifice the Sepik river

Posted on 03 September 2021

Communities oppose the mine and hydropower development that threatens the health of the Sepik river
The Sepik River is Papua New Guinea’s longest, free flowing river and one of the largest and most intact river basins in the entire Asia Pacific region, but all of this could change as plans move forward for a controversial mining and hydropower development on one of the river’s major tributaries.

It’s exactly the kind of huge development that would have sailed through back in the 20th century. Potential profits from a massive copper mine in the Sepik river basin in Papua New Guinea would have ridden roughshod over any concerns about the impact on the communities and species that rely on the river and its surrounding forests.

But we are now in the 21st Century facing twin climate and nature crises, and with a much clearer understanding of the values of healthy, free flowing rivers and the irreparable damage that this kind of development - open cast mine, tailings dam and a hydropower project to power it all - can inflict on river systems. And the diverse benefits they provide to people and nature.

The Sepik River is PNG’s longest, free flowing river and one of the largest and most intact river basins in the entire Asia Pacific region. It sustains the region’s incredible biodiversity as well as a remarkable diversity of cultures, languages and communities. But all of this could change as plans move forward for a controversial mining and hydropower development on one of the river’s major tributaries - a development that has united local communities in opposition.

With delegates gathering in person and virtually today for the start of the IUCN World Conservation Congress, it’s a great opportunity to focus global attention on the importance of free flowing rivers - such as the Sepik. Indeed, the Congress has adopted an important resolution about the need to provide durable protection for free flowing rivers and will be discussing the best ways to safeguard freshwater biodiversity - one of the most important of which is to keep rivers free flowing.

Already, we have lost 2/3rds of the world’s long free flowing rivers. We can’t afford to lose any more - such as the Sepik. Or the other nine iconic rivers highlighted in WWF's new 10 Rivers at Risk report.

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“It is our identity, our life, and the heartbeat of our culture. A life without the Sepik River as we know it would devastate our communities forever" - Emmanuel Peni, community campaigner
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From its source in Papua New Guinea’s northern, cloud forested mountains, the Sepik river winds its way eastwards over 1,120km down to the sea through tropical rainforest and lowland mangroves, diverse habitats of global significance for biodiversity - and life-sustaining importance for local communities.
 
With 1,500 lakes and other associated wetlands, the Sepik is the longest free flowing river system in PNG. It is also one of the largest and most intact freshwater basins in the whole of the Asia Pacific region, encompassing two Global 200 ecoregions, three endemic bird areas and three centres of plant diversity. The Upper Basin came close to being nominated for World Heritage status in 2006, while the river was proposed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2017.
 
Although the Sepik basin is one of the least developed areas in PNG, it’s nevertheless home to some 430,000 people, who depend almost entirely on products from the river and its surrounding forests for their livelihoods. The Sepik River provides them with food, water for drinking, washing and transport, and it fertilizes its banks that sustain fruit and vegetable gardens, and plantations of sago and tobacco. The local economy is built on the sale of sago, fish, freshwater prawns, eels, turtles, and the eggs, skins and meat of crocodiles. In a richly diverse region in cultural terms – more than 300 languages are spoken in an area the size of France – the river is at the beating heart of every village.
 
But PNG’s rich natural resources could now prove disastrous for the people of the Sepik River. PanAust – an Australian-registered but actually Chinese-state-owned company – is on the point of beginning development of the largest mine in the country and one of the largest in the world to get at the region’s deposits of copper, silver and gold.
 
The giant plan on the Frieda river, a major tributary of the Sepik, includes the open-pit mine itself as well as a hydropower plant, power grid, and road, air and seaport construction. It also includes a tailings dam (where mining waste and toxic by-products are stored) two and a half times the size of Sydney harbour.
 
With estimated annual revenues of US$1.5 billion for the next 30 years, it’s not hard to see why PanAust and its backers want the project to go ahead. Although it’s less obvious why the government would since tax concessions and the company’s complex, foreign ownership structure means that the people of PNG will see little of that - the people of the Sepik even less. Meanwhile, local communities will bear the brunt of the social and environmental impacts.

Opponents warn that the mine would be a disaster waiting to happen: in an area of high seismic activity and extreme rainfall, the chances of damage to the tailings dam are high – yet PanAust’s Environmental Impact Statement lacked any information or analysis on the possibility of a dam break. Running mining activities over an area of some 16,000 hectares within the Sepik river basin will devastate the local region even without the possibility of a catastrophic dam break. The hydropower dam needed to run the mine will severely impact the natural flow of the Sepik that is critical for people and nature downstream, and the toxic chemicals from the mineworks could poison the river.
 
The United Nations was so concerned about the proposed development that 10 special rapporteurs looked into it. They came away voicing “serious concerns” that “the project and its implementation so far appears to disregard the human rights of those affected”. Free prior and informed consent has been ignored.
 
Heading the campaign for a total ban on the mine development are the people of the Sepik River themselves, who have come together to campaign to Save The Sepik. In an unprecedented move, chiefs from 28 haus tambarans – ‘spirit houses’ that are the cultural and political hub of villages in the region – representing 78,000 people issued a collective Supreme Sukundimi Declaration demanding an end to the project.

“We have gathered together as Guardians of the River to stand firm as one,” said the Chiefs. “The Sepik River is not ours. We are only vessels of the Sepik Spirit that dwells to protect it. We will guard it with our lives.”

Communities like those in the Sepik have been fighting to tell the world what we can clearly see now: we must protect free-flowing rivers and the immense benefits they provide. Short-sighted development decisions risk destroying fragile ecosystems and the lives and livelihoods that rely on them. The World Conservation Congress can help amplify these community voices and ensure that freshwater ecosystems are a part of the conversation when it comes to protecting biodiversity.
Bathing a young child in the April River, Pukapuki village.
Bathing a young child in the April River, Pukapuki village. Freshwater remains relatively unpolluted in Papua New Guinea, but locals are concerned about the effect of mining companies whose byproducts are washed into rivers, with the potential to increase pollution, as well as a sedimentary build-up that can inrease levels of flooding. East Sepik province, Papua New Guinea.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF
River and forest landscape, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images
Mother and child, Pukapuki village, East Sepik province, Papua New Guinea.
Mother and child, Pukapuki village, East Sepik province, Papua New Guinea.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF
A river weaving its way through dense forest in East Sepik province, Papua New Guinea.
© Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK