Indonesia: Lake Toba ecosystem badly needs protection

Erika Pardede Jakarta Post 22 May 16;

The government is now working on the establishment of a tourism authority for Lake Toba in North Sumatra as part of its program to turn the famous lake into one of the country’s major tourist destinations.

At present, the public can now enjoy newly opened direct flights between Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and Silangit Airport, near the lake. A toll road will also be built to shorten the travel time to reach the lake overland.

People will soon witness the rise of mass tourism at Lake Toba, Samosir Island and the seven regencies that share the lake. What will the impact of this tourism development be? Many people are waiting curiously, hoping that development will improves their lives. Meanwhile others are calling for a prudent approach in developing the plan.

The Lake Toba ecosystem and its surrounding area serves the people living in the area. It provides abundant fresh water. Lake Toba is recognised as the largest permanent lake body in Southeast Asia.

The basin and catchment area, through farming and fishing, supplies food to the community, whilst a forest provides wood and various herbs. For more than 20 years, two hydropower plants in Siguragura and Tangga have been supplied with water from Lake Toba.

The Lake Toba ecosystem services, in fact, go beyond those basic needs. Beside all those benefits, the lake ecosystem also plays a crucial role in regulating the water flows and water regime.

Like other lakes throughout the globe, the ecosystem of Toba also helps to regulate the atmosphere and climate, and dampen environmental disturbances such as storms and floods. It helps as a biological control mechanism to decrease destructive populations.

Moreover, the lake ecosystem also supports the process of soil formation, photosynthesis, pollination and nutrient cycling. Those processes support and affect the ability of the ecosystem to maintain its provisional processes and services.

Last but not least, Lake Toba provides cultural, spritual, recreational and aesthetic benefits for people. Batak tribes in the area are still connected to and maintain their traditional culture, handed down from generation to generation.

There are lots of myths among the native people and they practice traditional rituals. Being buried in their homeland Toba, the land of their ancestors, is something most Batak people desire. They preserve tombs and cemeteries contain graves from ancient times to the present.

Population growth and development over the past two decades has affected the ecosystem of the lake. Its catchment area faces an environmental crisis characterized by widespread deforestation, drought, water level decline, water-quality degradation, invasive species and loss of biological diversity.

Developing the lake into a major tourist destination has caused concerns about its impact on the ecosystem. The tourism industry brings financial gain, and a location becoming a tourist destination brings both direct and secondary impacts, affecting tour operators, tourist enterpreneurs, local residents and the central government.

However, besides financial benefits, it can also have a negative impact on the environment.

Many studies have revealed that tourism can put pressure on natural resources, local resources and create land degradation. Human activities that cause habitat destruction and widespread deforestation has affected the slope and land around the lake. Tonnes of logs are daily extracted from the forest.

There has been significant land-use conversion for industrial and residential development. Later on, tourism will demand a large amount of land to support the need for hotels, recreation areas, resorts and parks. This will further shift the land-use pattern from predominantly forest and farmland to infrastucture that supports tourism.

Currently, intensive agricultural practices and floating-cage aquaculture in the lake have led to contamination, both from a chemical used in agricultural practices and fish food.

The spreading of hyacinth water plants over the lake surface is an indication of a change in water quality suggesting the water has been affected by a heavy pollutant.

The high concentration of tourists can also cause forms of pollution such as air, water, noise and aesthetic pollution; besides increase of solid waste, sewage and littering. Tourism activities can lead to the loss of biological diversity, and in the long run at the global level will contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer and climate change.

Finally, although Toba Land is not new to tourism, the goverment‘s plan will big changes to the area. Is the community ready for such a big leap to support today’s style of tourism. Disruption of cultural practices may also occur, and people will need to adapt to the new situation.

The development of Lake Toba as a tourist destination should also consider its negative impacts on the ecosystem.

The writer is a lecturer at the University of HKBP Nommensen, Medan

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