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In the Heat of the Night

25 May 11
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It’s the dry season in Bandung – you can tell by the heat. Since the beginning of May we’ve had many more days where the daytime temperature, rather than hitting the high 80s, has well exceeded 90-degrees. At night, the muggy air in my bedroom never drops below 80.

It’s hard to tell that it’s the dry season though, because the rains haven’t stopped, at least yet. Many locals will tell you it has rained every day in Bandung for more than three years. That’s a bit deceptive, because it may rain in the southern part of the city one day, and the north the next. But we still get more than our share of rain. In fact, it’s raining right now. And we have, at least in part, climate change to thank for this abundance of water during the hot season.

The difference in rain between the seasons seems to be one of intensity. During the rainy season most rains came as gentle downpours. Rarely would the heavens simply open up and dump on us. Now that’s changed. More often than not it seems the rains, when they come, are of biblical proportions, with lightning appearing to be everywhere at once, and thunder loud enough to make sleeping babies cry. Streets suddenly become rivers, with cars ferrying people across and along what have suddenly become massive waterways.

Given this, it would seem that Indonesia would not have many water problems. But that would be wrong. Like much of the world, water issues are severe here.

The most visible problem of course is pollution. Batik factories in central Java turn rivers red, blue and indigo every time they dump their waste dyes into the closest water body. Street runoff in Jakarta and Bandung deposits used motor oil, dirt and plastic bags into nearby canals and streams.

Equally a problem is the disposal of human waste. Cities have sewer systems, but just as their water pipes leak precious water, the sewer lines also leak, spewing raw sewage into the ground, and into waterways. And not everyone has access to the sewer system anyway. So poorer households may simply dump their wastes into the nearest canal or stream under the assumption that it will be carried away. Of course, the problem with that is someone upstream is doing the same thing.

This problem with water became very apparent to us recently.

A few months ago we were exploring an unfamiliar area of south central Jakarta, looking for a statue of Barack Obama located in an elementary school courtyard. Not far from the school we stumbled on a street lined with fabulous stalls selling everything from old diving equipment and ancient typewriters to ceremonial daggers. However, lacking the time to really explore, we didn’t get back there until a couple of weeks ago.

The stalls line the eastern side of a one kilometer stretch of the busy street of Surabaya. We had a Tuk-tuk drop us at the northern end, and began wandering in and out of shops. Now and then a side street would open up revealing a canal just behind the shops to the east and more shops beyond. After perhaps 30 minutes of wandering and bargaining, we decided to cross over the canal when we were hit by the smells of raw sewage. Apparently the canal, which was slow-moving, served for some as a toilet. The stench was overpowering, and sent us running back to Jalan Surabaya while trying to hold our breath.

So for Indonesians, much of the country’s surface water really isn’t fit to drink. Those who can afford it rely on large containers of bottled water instead. Those who can’t afford to buy bottled water are often sick.

Out in the countryside, rainwater is sometimes used. We were driving to Krakatau in April during an incredible storm when we passed a young woman standing outside her home in nothing but her underwear. She was showering and brushing her teeth in the relatively clean rainwater pouring off the roof.

I say relatively clean because a report last year by Indonesia’s weather agency indicated that the pH level of the country’s rainwater is dropping precipitously, from 5.6 in 2009 to 4.52 last year in Jakarta, and even less in some other cities. Who knows what that measure is today.

pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity of water. It’s measured on a scale of 1-14. 7 is neutral, while anything lower is considered acidic, and anything higher is considered alkaline. The lower the number, the more acidic. Each whole value change below 7 means the reading is ten times higher in acid content than the higher whole value.

Normal rain has a pH of anywhere from 5.6 to 6. It is slightly acidic because it reacts with carbon dioxide in the air to form carbonic acid, which is considered to be very weak. So a reading of 4.52 in Jakarta means that rainwater is slightly more than ten times stronger as an acid than normal rainwater.

Now to put that in a little perspective, Indonesia does not hold a lock on acid rain. The pH of rain around Washington, D.C. according to the U.S. geological Survey is between 4.2 and 4.4, or just a bit worse than Jakarta. But it is still an additional pollutant load for the waters here.

Carbon dioxide is not the only way rainwater can become acidic. As we know from the Adirondacks, other pollutants can cause acid rain as well. Sulfur emissions from Midwest power plants for many years turned Adirondacks rain into a brew of sulfuric acid, ruining thousands of lakes in the region. Car exhaust added to the problem, spewing nitrogen into the air to form more acid. Scrubbers on power plant smokestacks eventually reduced the sulfur, and the lakes have partially recovered. But that improvement has stalled because the car exhaust remains.

The same duo of problems faces Indonesian water. Cars and motorcycles are everywhere here, spewing a potent brew of gases and particulates. With emissions testing non-existent, it’s not a great leap to see how nitrogen releases are causing major problems. And the traffic keeps getting worse – we have noticed a major increase in traffic jams just in the nine months we’ve been here.

Coal is a major power source for Indonesia, as well as a major source of income. The country is a major coal exporter, with 2/3rds of its reserves in deposits on the island of Sumatra, which lies to the west of us. Because of this ready supply, coal power is a major energy source on Sumatra, and the prevailing winds blow emissions our way.

So Indonesia is faced with the same pollution that causes acid rain as the U.S. Unfortunately, they seem to do little to reduce those emissions.

Pollution is not the only problem with Indonesia’s water – how its use is allocated is also at issue.

Indonesia grows many tons of food each year to feed its fast-growing population, and many additional tons of food are exported to other south Asian countries. All that agriculture though requires a lot of water. While in the United States about 42% of fresh water use goes to irrigate crops, that number is more than double here. 91% of freshwater withdrawals are used to help feed a hungry nation, according to figures presented by another Fulbright Fellow at a recent conference.

A major cause of water loss is poor irrigation. Rice is an important food crop here. Most rice farmers divert water from a source – a stream or a well – into one end of their fields, where it flows downhill from one paddy to the next until it flushes out at the bottom. Canals moving water to the top of the fields are not lined, so a large amount of water seeps back into the ground. More water evaporates. The canals are sometimes used to dispose of trash, and weeds clog them, causing them to overflow in heavy rains.

Canals here are generally part of the problem. Long ago when Indonesia had many fewer people canals made sense. In a land of abundant water it was an easy way to grow food. But today, with more than 130 million people crowded onto an island the size of Florida, better water management is not just a good idea, it’s a necessity if they want to continue feeding everyone.

Other farmers not growing rice use similar techniques to water their crops. The result is a massive waste of this resource.

I was at a conference years ago when a speaker, talking about so-called urban renewal in American cities, said “Tearing down an old stately building shows a lack of vision.” That comment resonated with me, and I’ve thought a lot since then about the difficulty in changing the paradigms we use in our lives. So it was with some interest that I listened to that Fulbright presentation on water use. The scholar went on about pilot projects aimed at helping to reduce water loss in canals, and how to help farmers reduce water loss even further.

After the presentation I pointed out that they were making incremental reductions in water usage. So I asked if they thought instead about teaching permaculture methods that would simply end the need for most irrigation, marking a dramatic change in water use. He said that wasn’t part of their project.

Introducing permaculture techniques can be challenging. Last year I led a workshop in Zambia where we taught introductory permaculture to journalists, so they could then produce stories about these better farming practices. But our two day workshop barely covered the most basic information.

It’s a shame so much knowledge of permaculture has been lost. After all, this is not a new science – rather, it’s a return to the farming methods used by our ancestors. Permaculture respects the land, and uses local knowledge to grow better crops using no chemical inputs. The land is healthy, and so are those who depend on it for their livelihoods.

There are many answers to problems, including those plaguing Indonesia’s water supplies. But in my mind, one universal impediment to solving those problems is simply a lack of vision – a vision that would allow us to re-think the way we define things. Until that occurs, Indonesia’s water problems will no doubt remain.



Yes, that's a rat eating the trash

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