The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, November 30, 2006


THE FOUL REFUSE OF TEMAS © Duncan Graham 2006

The Lapindo hot mud eruption at Sidoarjo in East Java is in its fourth month. The disaster has swamped more than 300 hectares of paddy, 20 factories and several villages. More than 10,000 are homeless. With no end in sight the effluent is now being piped into the nearby Porong River.

Using rivers as drains has long been an easy way to dispose of waste – and you don’t need a test tube and litmus papers to know that many Indonesian waterways are heavily polluted. Just an average nose and reasonable eyesight are enough. Some communities aren’t waiting for government action – they’re cleaning up the creeks themselves. Duncan Graham reports from central East Java:

Temas is a small village near the tourist town of Batu, in the hills north west of Malang. Most visitors know the fancy hotels, knockout views and cheery flower gardens flanking the roads, a kaleidoscope of colour.

But behind the prettiness is something ugly. In a back street are the chicken slaughterhouses, with almost 50 households involved in the trade.

Every night when most folk are asleep live fowls are trucked from distant farms, slaughtered and dressed. Unlike Western processors who present a headless, clawless empty carcase to the shopper, the butchers of Temas are more efficient.

The feet, heads, hearts, some blood and the best feathers are all preserved for sale. Every day before dawn three tonnes of chicken meat leave the village for markets in Surabaya, Malang and other centres.

But not the offal and unsaleable feathers. They get dumped in a nearby creek that eventually flows into the Brantas. (See Sidebar)

Apart from the washdown from the fowl abattoirs – with some also used to process fish - there’s a steady stream of white liquid pouring from two tofu (soft soy-bean cake) factories into the same small stream. Then there’s raw sewage.

Every 100 metres or so are tiny unroofed huts with one metre high walls. In these loos with views the village residents relieve themselves straight into the slowly flowing water. Domestic waste and run-off from the roads also spills into the system.

What was a riverlet is now a sewer. It meanders past an irrigated vegetable patch then cascades down a slope to another village. Despite the pollutants men wade waist deep to filter red worms from the mud. These are used as fish feed.

All users of this resource, including a forge hammering out knives and sickles, are within a few hundred metres of each other.

Not surprisingly skin infections and respiratory problems have been reported among farmers working downstream. These have prompted demands for proper water management.

The obvious answer is to ban discharges and force the factories to install their own waste systems and the householders to build septic tanks. But that’s not practical in Indonesia. Factories and families would claim a lack of money, and the government doesn’t seem to have the power or will to enforce regulations.

With no quick-fix solution which wouldn’t cause severe economic hardship to the village, the issue had to be handled with care.

Plant pathologist Arief Lukman Hakim, a Sustainable Agriculture Extension Specialist working for the Environmental Services Program (ESP) in East Java got involved. The ESP is a US-Aid funded program operating in five provinces.

“At first I didn’t know what to do about the problem,” Arief said. “It was very complex. There were so many pollutants. At night the river is running red with blood. I didn’t know where to look for answers.”

Eventually he discovered wastewater treatments using ‘eco-technology’ that had become popular in some villas and hotels in Bali. These were being promoted by a foundation called Indonesian Development of Education and Permaculture (IDEP).

Labelled Wastewater Gardens these used a process developed 20 years ago in the US through the self-contained Biosphere project. This was an experiment to see if people and plants could live in a closed ecological system.

A year ago this month (Sept) about 30 people from 13 villages gathered to discuss the Temas pollution problem with the ESP. The wetland filtration system was proposed. The local administration put in Rp 100 million (US $11,000), and the community donated the land and the labour. The earthworks are now in place and being primed.

The system can’t cope with all the muck and mess – there’s just too much. But when fully operational this coming wet season it should be able to supply clean – but not potable – water for the villagers at the bottom of the hill.

It works like this: The polluted water is channelled into a concrete settling tank where the heavy muck remains. It’s then piped to three lines of contour banks built down the hillside.

Each bank (called a ‘cell’) has been excavated to make a long impervious trench filled with gravel. The water seeps through limestone to help neutralise acids, then into the banks. These will be planted with bushes and trees to suck up and use the nutrients.

The technologists claim that the final product will have significantly less nitrogen, phosphorous and bacteria. It doesn’t use pumps or chemicals and needs little maintenance. There’s no surface water so no smell or mosquitoes.

“I believe it will produce water clean enough for bathing and washing clothes, “ said Arief. “It can probably only cope with 10 per cent of the discharge – but that’s a start. We want this to be an education and demonstration project so other villages can see what to do.”

Will the Brantas ever get as clean as London’s Thames that was once the capital’s sewer but now attracts whales?

“It’s going to take a long time,” said Arief. “Indonesia is now a democratic country and the people are using their new powers. How they determine the future will depend on many factors.

“Land care groups are already in place, cleaning up the environment, planting trees and conserving the watershed. Small-scale waste composting projects have started. There’s an awareness of the problems.

“We can marry the bottom-up approach taken by communities with the top-down administration favored by local government. In most cases we try to use local networks

“The role of the ESP is not to lead but to train trainers and bring in technical advice. How people see their future is for them to decide.”



The Brantas River is East Java’s spittoon, sewer, drain and rubbish tip.

And its water supply.

By the time this 328 kilometre long artery reaches the coastal plain around Surabaya it’s saturated with toxins. The dissolved oxygen in the water during the dry season is often too low to support aerobic life.

And in the wet season it frequently floods, destroying life.

This great – and presumably once majestic - waterway rises on the slopes of the 3339 metre Ardjuna volcano south of Surabaya. From here it goes south, then west, curling round a volcanic range before heading north.

It was once the source of wealth for the mighty Majapahit kingdom of 700 years ago.

It’s so important that it’s been classified as a national strategic river with its own watershed authority. This is supposed to regulate and conserve this most precious and essential element.

Over the years the Brantas has been studied, analysed, discussed and debated by local and international authorities. But by the time it gets near the sea it still looks like an oily scum carrying a fleet of bobbing black plastic bags.

The river drains and feeds about 12,000 square kilometres, a quarter of the province. Its waters are used to grow crops, supply industries and meet the toilet needs of up to twenty million people. Five hydroelectric stations along the river’s course generate power.

So why isn’t the Brantas in pristine condition, sparkling bright, splashing with fish, the pride of the province? Why has it been so abused?

It’s easy to accuse the people. In the past, before urbanisation, the population boom, chemicals, detergents, plastics and noxious industries, the rivers could be used as drains with little harm.

Not now. If the population hasn’t been supplied with proper public health facilities, education on the environment and alerts to the dangers of pollution should the poor really take all the blame?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 November 2006)