The Kedung Ombo dam is one of five dams planned within the Jratunseluna River Basin Development. The plans started to be conceived in 1969, under the authoritarian regime of Suharto in Indonesia and with a loan from the World Bank of US$ 156 Million.
Suharto, in line with his predecessor Sukarno, executed a top-down growth-oriented development model based on intensive natural resources extraction. Soon after he took power in 1967, he declared Indonesia to become the “top dam building nation in South East Asia” and aimed to use water projects to integrate depressed areas in the country into the national economy (G Aditjondro, D Kowalewski). Despite steps taken by his regime towards the application of some environmental regulation (especially after the 1972 UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm), Suharto’s plans for Indonesia’s development was far from being sustainable. Due to the authoritarian repression, mobilizations in the country have not reached a significant level of coordination and incidence.
According to Khagram (2004) the opposition to Kedung Ombo dam is perhaps the most vivid case of protest actions, which however could not achieve its goals because of military repression. The dam, planned since 1969, was going to submerge the land and villages of more than 5,000 households (totalling 25,000 people), who got notified only 13 years later later, just before the construction of roads and other infrastructure was initiated. They started to pursue a legal strategy, assisted by local nongovernmental organizations. Protest mounted after the mid ‘80s and large groups of students joined the struggle. Government officials tried to divide the mobilizers by offering different compensation rates and trying to co-opt them.
Transnational solidarity was also expressed, since the project was also funded by the Dutch government, the European Economic Community, the Export-Import Bank of Japan, etc. The Indonesian Institute for Legal Aid (YLBHI) sent a letter to the World Bank enumerating the problems of the affected people and a large coalition formed around the recently founded International NGO Forum on Indonesia and the Indonesian Environment Forum (WAHLI), as well as foreign groups like the Netherlands Organization for International Development Cooperation.
Due to the pressure of these national and international EJOs as well as by the Dutch Minister for Development, the World Bank was compelled to start an examination on the project. The expert appointed prepared a report which was very critical of both WB and Indonesian authorities.
However, notwithstanding domestic and international lobbying and even a Supreme Court ruling in favor of raising the compensation rates to the plaintiffs (later cancelled under government pressure), the project went ahead and more dams have been cleared within the Jratunseluna River Basin Development scheme over the ‘90s.
It was only due to the 1997-98 crisis that the dam industry sector went under troubles in the country due to lack of fundings; in the meanwhile, spaces for transnationally pro-democracy coalitions and movements have grown.