What we have learned from floods and sick rivers

By: Yansen, Queensland
We have witnessed rainy season disasters across this country for the last couple months. Floods have incurred significant economic losses. The latest flood along the Citarum River bank in West Java, for example, destroyed thousands of hectares of paddy fields and disrupted the textile industry.

Considering what has already happened, we have adequate rational reasons to say that the problem will be much more complicated in the future. The fundamental question is: What have we learned from these disasters?

Floods in watershed areas correlate with damage to that area’s ecosystem. Vegetation loss on the surface makes soil unable to absorb rainwater. Consequently, the rate of run-off increases each time it rains.

Eventually, rivers cannot absorb the excess run-off, causing floods.

The problem is not only evident during the rainy season. Another kind of disaster haunts the dry season. The soil’s inability to absorb water during the wetter months means underground water reservoirs are compromised, resulting in low river-water levels and drought during the dry season. Subsequently, economic activities will also be affected. Low water levels, for example, cannot run hydroelectric power turbines. Paddy fields also suffer from the lack of irrigation.

This is the picture of sick rivers. In reality, rivers play crucial roles in people’s lives. It is worth noting that about 30 million people depend on Citarum River. However, almost all major watersheds in Indonesia are in a critical condition.

The high rate of population growth and urbanization are parts of the problem. More inhabitants in upper stream areas mean more land needs to be converted to accomodate the need of the people. Those conversions lead to river ecosystem crisis. More people also mean an increase on the need of clean water.

On the other hand, urbanization and the emergence of industrial complexes along rivers generate another problem, i.e. water pollution. Citarum River, for example, is the most polluted river in Indonesia, even the world. Hence, the community also faces poor sanitation.

Damage to river ecosystems has become a real problem. If no serious action is taken, water crises in forms of floods, droughts and pollution will become much worse in the future. Therefore, river conservation must become a priority among state development programs.

S.J. Ormerod (1999) outlined three challenges to river conservation. The first challenge is the lack of understanding on river ecosystems as well as the threats they face. The second is the absence of long-term river management approaches and their geographically wide scale. And the last is the shortage of holistic and ecological understanding on rivers.

Floods should raise more understanding on the strong and causal connections between up and down-stream ecosystems. However, it is difficult to understand why we remain unaware of the consequences involved.

Up-stream communities are unconcerned with what effect their activities, such as uncontrolled land conversion, have on down-stream communities. The government’s approach to the problem also tends to be reactive and in short-term perspectives.

A river is a product of bio-physics and social factors. A river is also a common good. Therefore, identifications of involved processes and stakeholders are an important step in conservation of watershed areas. It has to be related to time scale, ecological areas, regulations and other social scales. This will help us find innovative and concrete solutions and find agreed points from many interest groups.

River ecosystem rehabilitation efforts have to have a people-based approach. Educating people on river ecosystems as well as the consequences of river degradation is the main step toward a solution. People’s resistance to plant trees on agricultural land may be able to be stimulated by community forestry with an incentives-based approach.

The Forestry Ministry should not only offer tree seedlings to be planted by farmers, because there is no guarantee they will plant them. The department should do more by offering incentives to community members who are willing to plant and grow trees, to rehabilitate degraded lands along rivers and to apply conservation-oriented agricultural practices. This incentive could become a form of “marketing” to promote rivers as a public good.

Micro-rehabilitation projects by offering incentive to local communities might be more effective than giant top-down-approach projects. Rehabilitation funds could directly target farmers in critical areas. The Asian Development Bank, for example, is allocating US$500 million for the Citarum River rehabilitation project over the next 15 years (CNN.com, March 30). What a pity if this fund results in nothing.

It also has to be emphasized that regional planning should not only be based inside administrative borders, but more ecologically oriented with watershed areas as the basic line. This will make development programs consider the conditions of upper and down-stream ecosystems. Regulations on river conservation must also be more enforced. We desperately need a holistic, wide scale and long-term approach for river management. Otherwise, our rivers will always become the source of disasters.

The writer is an ecologist at the University of Bengkulu and an Australian Leadership Awards fellow.


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