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The locals fighting for a flood-free Jakarta

September 17, 2023
tags:#Indonesia, #Waste Management, #water pollution, #Jakarta, #plastic pollution
To tackle its worsening floods, Jakarta must first sort out its waste management crisis, experts say, pointing to the shared responsibility of the authorities and residents.

Chaerudin, also known as Babe Idin, is the founder of the Environmental Farmers Group (KTLH) of Sangga Buana in South Jakarta. This for-profit entity, which he established in 1998, centers its efforts on waste management and greening the Pesanggrahan River's surroundings.

Babe Idin, 74, is known as a local hero among his Betawi tribe for transforming the previously littered riverbank into a green and prosperous area for residents living along the Pesanggrahan.

After finishing his work for the day, Babe Idin invited FairPlanet to sit on a tree trunk across from his yard in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta. His garden appeared like a an oasis, with its lush bamboo plants standing in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle that envelops it.

Babe Idin's distinctive laughter marked the beginning of every story he told. He explains to FairPlanet how he began collecting waste, cleaning up trash and planting bamboo and vegetables around the riverbanks of Pesanggrahan, which lies just a short distance from his home.

This initial step turned out to be quite challenging, he shared. "I was often interrogated and apprehended by the authorities," recalled Babe Idin, who now serves as the chairman of KTLH.

According to data from the DKI Jakarta Provincial Environmental Service, between October and December 2021, the amount of waste removed from rivers in Jakarta totaled 121,433.53 cubic meters.

"The plants that grow in [my] yard are fertilised with organic matter derived from household waste collected by KTLH, as well as fallen leaves," Babe Idin told FairPlanet.

Babe Idin's dedication to his cause has spanned decades, which is evident in his yard, where several vegetable plants, including chili and coffee, flourish.

In the early days of his involvement, people misunderstood his actions and interpreted his efforts to clear waste from riverbanks and plant bamboo as acts of black magic or manifestations of a mental illness. But despite facing scepticism form his community, Babe Idin persevered, driven by his passion for the environment. 

"I'm fed up!" 

"I'm frustrated. They blame the river for the floods, blame the waste," Babe Idin said, referring to the devastating floods that have been affecting the area, partially to to the over-presence of litter in local waterways. "But they're the ones causing the floods. Green areas turned into concrete, and the riverbanks became dumping grounds. Whose fault is it?"

Today, along with his workers at KTLH, Babe Idin spearheads trash collection efforts in the vicinity of the Pesanggrahan. The waste is then processed into organic fertiliser and rubber sand, some of which is sold to plastic waste collectors. The organic fertiliser produced is used to nourish vegetables grown by KTLH.

On an average day, KTLH reportedly sells a minimum of 3 tonnes of vegetables, which it distributes in Jakarta's main markets.

KTLH's team works on a freelance basis, and workers reportedly receive at least 70 per cent of the proceeds from selling trash and vegetables. Meanwhile, Babe Idin himself receives an average of 30 per cent of the proceeds, which he uses to invest back into KTLH operations and cover personal expenses.

"Look, all of this is the result of waste," Babe Idin said, pointing at the bamboo and coffee trees in his extensive yard.

A growing cohort of clean-up enthusiasts 

But Babe Idin and KTLH are not alone in their fight against waste pollution in the region. A growing trend is emerging, it appears, where groups of young people head over to trash-laden riverbanks and launch cleanup operations. Among these groups are the Sungai Watch and River Ranger communities.

The Sungai Watch community started its movement in Badung, Bali. Their mission is to protect and restore Indonesia's rivers by developing simple technologies to prevent plastic pollution from reaching the ocean.

Founded in 2020 by Gary, Kelly and Sam Bencheghib, the community currently has a team of 90.

Sungai Watch reports successfully collecting over 1,000,000 kg of plastic from the environment as of March 2023 and installing barriers in over 180 rivers, 32 villages and four regions of Indonesia. It also organised over 600 community clean-ups, totaling over two years' worth of volunteer work hours.

River Ranger is an environmental community located along the Ciliwung River in East Jakarta. This community encourages children to create Ecobricks from the plastic waste they collect and rom the river's sorroundings. The organisation has currently runs two main programmes: nature classes and a monthly plastic-waste-clean-up activity entitled "Clean Together."

In 2019, the group reported picking up at least 700 kilograms of plastic waste in just half an hour. On another occasion, it collected up to a tonne of trash in less than an hour. However, feeling overwhelmed, they finally limited plastic waste collection to eight trash bags per activity.

The Fairy Tale of the Land Beneath the Wind

Babe Idin invited FairPlanet to walk along the banks of the Pesanggrahan with him, and pointed out the many bamboo trees that he and his organisation have been planting over the past 30 years.

According to Babe Idin, these bamboos hold great significance. He often tells a fairy tale called "The Land Beneath the Wind," which recounts how this species was brought by colonists on sailboats, relying on the wind from the river to the ocean.

The tale carries a message for the youth, aiming to remind them of the importance of rivers in Indonesia. This is Babe Idin's way of urging the younger generation to preserve the cleanliness of the surrounding rivers.

Walking along the banks of the Pesanggrahan with Babe Idin, we observed the presence of mature trees he had planted decades ago. Surprisingly, there was no unpleasant odour or scattered trash, which are typical along riverbanks near Jakarta.

FairPlanet also observed that there was no unpleasant odour at KTLH's waste management facility. Babe Idin attributed this to the excellent management of the organisation's members.

He further shared that KTLH collaborates with the local government on waste management. Every day, roughly 20 government-owned trucks from DKI Jakarta supply trash from around the city to the KTLH waste management facility.

These waste materials are recycled, with some being repurposed, as Babe Idin explained.

Why Bamboo Trees?

Babe Idin emphasised that bamboo trees can retain a significant amount of water and that their roots can therefore prevent landslides. This is one of the reasons why he chose bamboo as the primary tree to plant along the banks of the Pesanggrahan.

According to Elizabeth A. Widjaja, a researcher at the Biology Research Centre of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), apart from reducing the risk of floods and landslides, bamboos can also conserve water.

How waste impacts the wallet (and beyond)

According to a study conducted by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), every day, an average of 97,098 items of waste totalling 23 tonnes enter Jakarta Bay through nine different rivers.

The flow of garbage from upstream rivers surrounding Jakarta is one of the factors contributing to floods in the city, which have a detrimental impact on the Indonesian economy.

The economic losses caused by the Jakarta floods in January 2020 amounted to Rp 960 billion (USD 64.3 million). This figure is lower compared to the losses from the February 2015 floods, which amounted to Rp 1.5 trillion (USD 100.4 million). Between January and February 2014, the losses reached Rp 5 trillion (USD 334.7 million).

According to Ahmad Heri Firdaus, a researcher at the Center of Industry, Trade, and Investment Indef, Jakarta contributes 17.23 per cent to the national GDP, while the second largest position belongs to East Java, which contributes 14.44 per cent.

Jakarta itself generated around Rp 5 trillion (USD 328.4 million) per day in 2022. Firdaus further stated that if flooding occurs in Jakarta, Indonesia will experience a minimum loss of between 20 to 30 per cent of the regional GDP.

Floods hinder various economic activities, leading to traffic congestion, decreased productivity and supply chain disruptions that result in significant economic losses, Firdaus said.

He added that floods lead to supply chain disruptions and increase fuel inefficiency, not to mention the personal material losses and trauma experienced by affected residents. 

The economic losses resulting from the dumping of waste into rivers not only contribute to flooding, which disrupts the Jakarta area and its surroundings, but also lead to water pollution and various other forms of environmental contamination.

Some people in Jakarta are currently no longer able to enjoy groundwater due to pollution caused by waste, and are forced to purchase clean water for daily activities. 

Will Jakarta Always Experience Flooding?

Despite the fact that a 2007 law (no. 26) concerning spatial planning stipulates that urban green space should account for 30 per cent of each city's area, Jakarta currently maintains only 5.18 per cent of green open space.

Rather than converting concrete structures into green open spaces, the Jakarta Provincial Government has instead chosen to decrease the availability of such green areas.

Many environmentalists link the lack of green open space in the city to Jakarta's over-crowdedness and attendant waste pollution crisis and recurrent floods. 

Puput TD Putra, chairman and founder of the Sustainable Indonesia Coalition (Kawali), is pessimistic about the possibility of fully resolving Jakarta's flooding problem. 

Speaking to FairPlanet, he noted that the government should lead by example, citing a a case where the Ministry of Environment and Forestry building in Cipinang Besar Selatan was constructed on land originally designated as green open space. Putra believes that such conduct by the government might encourage Indonesians to follow suit and build structures in green open spaces, thereby causing environmental damage.

Babe Idin stressed that planting bamboo trees or other water-absorbing vegetation along riverbanks and limiting the encroachments of residential neighbourhoods into green open spaces are viable solutions to prevent flooding. Raising public awareness about responsible garbage disposal, he said, is another.

But Putra emphasised that the efforts carried out by one party cannot alone solve the Jakarta's flooding and waste pollution crises. As he sees it, only a collaboration between central and regional governments, the private sector and local communities could lead to significant breakthroughs. 

Image by Syahdinar

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Babe Idin demonstrating how piles of rubbish are recycled at his organisation\'s facility.
© Syahdinar
Babe Idin demonstrating how piles of rubbish are recycled at his organisation's facility.
Babe Idin showed FairPlanet a tree he planted 30 years ago.
© Syahdinar
Babe Idin showed FairPlanet a tree he planted 30 years ago.
Babe Idin walking along the bank of the Pesanggrahan river.
© Syahdinar
Babe Idin walking along the bank of the Pesanggrahan river.