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Citizens against wastewater pollution

In honour of the UN-Water year on ‘Wastewater’, WIN is posting a series of guest blogs on the topic.

Community participation and citizen activism are vital for successful river management and for ensuring clean and healthy rivers.

Citizens are best placed to demand accountability from authorities and their political leaders. Often, they bring innovation and wit into their campaigns.

The love letter campaign against wastewater discharge

An interesting example relates to a citizen movement against wastewater discharge that occurred in the Brantas river basin in Indonesia.

A few years ago, 17-year-old Zaskia Dwi Aridhiyant was part of a youth group involved in fighting river pollution. She made a unique move to highlight the mismanagement of wastewater in the area around her school by initiating a campaign called A Love Letter for the Governor.

Zaskia gathered 15 students from her school, SMAN Driyorejo, to help monitor industrial wastewater discharge in the area. With a simple water quality test kit and camera for biomonitoring, her group collected samples that detected high levels of harmful pollutants. With the results in hand, the students then sent a ‘love letter’ to the polluting industries about their violations.

This letter stated that if the industries would take measures to handle the waste discharge and would respond, Zaskia would send them chocolates as a sign of appreciation.

Several industries replied to the love letter and committed to improving their wastewater management. But more than 60% of the letters were left unanswered. Unsatisfied with the result, Zaskia took the movement to another level. She gathered support by asking people to sign her love letter to the Governor of East Java, Sukarwo.

Every week over a period of three months, Zaskia campaigned in the city park to collect signatures for her letter to the governor. Eventually, she managed to collect over 500 signatures from students and citizens.

- Zaskia campaigned to gain public support every Sunday at Bungkul Park, Surabaya. Copyright: Ecoton.

After collecting signatures, Zaskia requested a hearing with the governor, to whom she wished to hand over the love letter with her demand for a better and healthier environment. The letter included her concerns with regard to the compliance of industries to wastewater discharge standards.

The governor responded and appointed his representative to meet and accept the love letter. Touched by the love letter, the Governor promised to improve the monitoring and control mechanism of industrial pollution and made the rehabilitation of the Brantas river basin a priority in the East Java province.

Pollution in the Brantas basin

Brantas is the second biggest river basin on Java Island, Indonesia. The river flows along 17 municipalities, covering 25% of East Java’s catchment. It supports irrigation to about 10,000 paddy fields, over 121 industries, 14 regional water supply enterprises (PDAM), and 10 major hydropower plants [1]. To support these economic and livelihood activities, the river basin was divided into two primary development areas, namely agricultural in the middle/upper area and industrial in the downstream area.

In the downstream area, which covers Surabaya city and surrounding regions, industrial development occurs without adequate pollution control measures in place. This has led to the deterioration of water quality. The Surabaya River Pollution Control Action Plan Study (1999) stated that the carrying capacity of the Surabaya river was 65 tons of BOD/day, but that the total pollution load was as high as 330 tons of BOD/day, much higher than the carrying capacity.

Industrial wastewater discharge from pulp, paper, and sugar cane factories is a key source of waste and lethal chemicals. Chemicals such as organochlorine pesticide [2], plastic [3], and brominated flame retardant [4] were all found in the downstream area of Surabaya.

Water pollution significantly affects the biodiversity of aquatic life, as well as the health and economy of communities living in the Brantas river basin. The decrease of high value fish species and decrease in general fish population has impacted the income of local fishermen. According to a 2011 study by Ecoton, about 50 fish species were lost in the past five decades.

Industries often do not comply with discharge standards or other requirements. In particular, during the rainy season, when the water levels of the river are at their peak, industries simultaneously discharge untreated or poorly treated wastewater into the river.

In addition, hidden channels continue to discharge untreated or poorly treated wastewater all year round. Other noteworthy violations include the fact that industries are not sending their mandatory six-monthly reports to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Environmental management and water programmes in the Brantas basin

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MEF) [5] of Indonesia has led two national programmes to tackle the problem of wastewater pollution. The Kali Bersih–PROKASIH aimed at reducing water pollution at the source. During the programme period of 2003–2008, 341 companies signed a statement letter in which they agreed to undertake measures to reduce pollution.

Another programme called PROPER (Corporate Performance Rating Assessment) encouraged compliance of companies by publicizing information related to their management of the environment. This programme was less successful since many industries did not comply.

Currently, Water Patrol is an ongoing joint programme which helps monitor and control water pollution, particularly industrial wastewater in the Brantas river basin. The programme involves a number of government agencies including the river basin organizations BBWS, Jasa Tirta 1, the EPA, the police department, the city government, the public work agency, and other related agencies. The Water Patrol programme is considered a success story since many different stakeholders are involved in controlling and monitoring industrial wastewater discharge.

Despite the ongoing Water Patrol programme, industries continue to clandestinely discharge untreated wastewater. This raises key integrity concerns and highlights the institutional gaps that hamper programmes such as Water Patrol from performing to their full potential. Based on the experience of Ecoton, three key concerns require due attention.

Recommendations to promote integrity and tackle wastewater pollution: building institutional capacity: environmental and river basin organisations

Firstly, there is a need to build the capacity of EPA Officials, since providing the right leadership within the EPA is crucial. Many times, EPA staff members are nominated by the government and lack the right skills to lead the agency. Posts in the EPA are often considered comfort postings.

The leadership does not want to take critical measures that involve risks and conflicts. There have also been instances where staff members have been eager to develop better and more effective programmes to counter pollution or pursue a case but were hampered due to a lack of support from the top.

An additional limitation is that the EPA lacks a state investigator and has no real authority to investigate pollution. The EPA is understaffed and often dependent on the regional EPA or MEF. With no state investigator, industries can easily hide evidence, which hampers transparency and accountability.

Preventing malpractice and promoting integrity management

Secondly, it is key to reduce the opportunities for malpractice. During a private conversation, factory owners and managers told Ecoton that unscrupulous police officers offered to dilute the charges against the defaulters in water pollution lawsuits, provided they were handed additional cash or gifts.

The cost of handling lawsuits is much higher as a result of corruption and blackmailing, than building or improving wastewater treatment facilities. In another case, police officers used complaint reports from NGOs to blackmail factory owners.

One way of reducing chances of malpractice is to involve the media: publishing stories in which industrial violators may be revealed, thanks to photo and data evidence. Alternatively, complaint letters may be sent to the provincial and municipal EPA, with proof of the violations. Factory owners can be sensitive to bad publicity and may be willing to better abide by the laws.

Integrity management, which focuses on integrity risk prevention, is also an important tool to reduce opportunities for malpractice. Together with cewas, WIN launched a pilot project applying the River Basin Integrity Management (IM) toolbox with the Brantas river basin organization in 2015.

The initiative is a new collaborative and practical avenue for stakeholders to approach the subject of water quality and pollution in the basin. It should be explored further.

Supporting community involvement

Finally, an efficient response mechanism and more community involvement are required. Communities are too often left out of project planning and not involved in project monitoring yet they are the most directly affected and concerned by water pollution and water resource management in the basin.

Communities and government institutions have noted the often slow response from EPA to their complaints and grievances. Slow responses have made many informants and communities feel neglected and discredited by the EPA.

It’s important that faster and more efficient response mechanisms for complaints are built to ensure outreach to communities.

The lack of awareness and participation in projects by communities is mainly due to a lack of information and access to active engagement in river basin management. Communities feel left out of river management planning. Most of the programmes are planned top-down and aren’t developed based on community needs.

An example of this is a programme aimed at reducing open defecation in the river. The government built communal sanitation facilities but many of these were not used because they were not placed in suitable locations, were designed poorly, or were not maintained. The facilities did not meet the community's needs. Involving communities from the very beginning of the planning stage is crucial. It means plans will be developed from and for the community and allows them to build a sense of belonging in relation to the programme. This helps ensure sustainability.

Communities also have a crucial role to play in monitoring programmes and holding governments and industries to account. The love letters of Zaskia Dwi Aridhiyant show that this is possible and can be effective but it requires follow-up and perseverance. Supporting the work of NGOs working with communities and of water integrity champions like Zaskia also for citizen monitoring is essential.

ECOTON sees that children or young peoples are vulnerable victims of environmental degradation and especially water pollution. That’s why we focus on empowering them with information and skills to independently monitor water quality and build their confidence to take action to solve the problems. They can make a difference.

- One of Zaskia’s group members handed the love letter to East Java Governor, Sukarwo. Copyright: Ecoton.

About Ecoton

ECOTON stands for Ecological Observation and Wetland Conservation. The organization is based in Wringinanom village, Gresik Regency. Established in 1998, ECOTON has been working on river rehabilitation issues for 19 years.

Litigation and non-litigation are ECOTON’s basic approaches to increase multi-stakeholder awareness and participation in Brantas river conservation. The non-litigation approach consists of research, lobbying and advocacy, and education. ECOTON pursues litigation after non-litigation approaches have failed. Litigation is also used as an entry point to open discussions with government institutions or companies/industries.

ECOTON works with youth to increase their awareness of the importance of their participation in ensuring the sustainability of clean water. ECOTON trained hundreds of students to monitor water quality with water bugs (biomonitoring). The method was developed 10 years ago to provide an easy and simple monitoring technique which enables everyone to actively participate in monitoring industrial or domestic pollution.

  • [1] Ministry of Public Work. Water Resources Management Plan – Brantas River Basin. 2010. page 101

  • [2] Sudaryanto A, Takahashi S, and Tanabe S. Chapter 13: Persistent toxic Substances in the environment of Indonesia. Dev. In Environ Sci. 2007. 7: 587 – 627

  • [3] Darmawanti R. Estrogenic compounds analysis in Surabaya river sediment and their impact to Asian redtailed catfish (Hemibagrus nemurus) intersexuality. 2013. Thesis. Airlangga University. 104 pg

  • [4] Ilyas M, Sudaryanto A, Setiawan I.E, Riyadi A.S., Isobe T, Takahashi S, Tanabe S. Characterization of PCB and BFR in sediments from riverine and coastal waters of Surabaya, Indonesia. Marine Poll Bull. 2011. 62:89-98

  • [5] The MEF shapes the national policy for industrial and domestic wastewater discharge. Other sector ministries (e.g. industry, marine affairs and fisheries) are responsible for implementing environmental management policy in their sector, while local governmental implementing are agencies responsible for issuing permits and monitoring discharge. Governors have the authority to control water pollution, but the implementation is in the hands of the head of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


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