Dirty hands, cleaner water

clean-upPart of the process of holding Festival Mata Air included a ‘Clean-up the World’ event last Saturday, which I traveled up to Salatiga to participate in. The photo to the right shows a particularly bad patch just centimetres from a major pool of a natural spring system providing drinking water to Salatiga. I’m in between shifts of digging out sack upon sack of plastic wrappers, food waste and old tarpaulins. Before I start spouting somewhat sanctimoniously about this, I should point out that this is the first ‘Clean-up’ event I’ve ever participated in, so I’m no saint.

Anyone who’s been to Indonesia knows that sanitation generally is a pretty big issue, with disposal of rubbish a core problem. I’m relatively lucky in so far as I live on a street that is regularly visited by an old bloke and his wheelbarrow to collect my household rubbish. This then – if what I’ve seen in passing applies – gets transferred onto a truck and taken to a landfill site. Others, however, don’t have that kind of service.

Rubbish is routinely discarded on the side of the road, or river, or beach. There appears to be only slight regard paid by very few people to disposing of rubbish in any other way. 

In order to achieve any semblance of orderliness, people will sweep rubbish into piles and burn it, including both organic material and plastics, metals, and glass. Every day, across Indonesia tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of small fires are burning in this way, spewing acrid plumes into houses, schools and offices. 

Of course the failure of the governments – national and provincial – to provide adequate waste disposal services in Indonesia is symptomatic of a developing economy. Yet even where waste disposal is centralized problems appear to be exacerbated rather than resolved. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some landfill sites are situated close to major waterways and that when they get close to full bulldozers are used to push the rubbish into the river.

The clean-up of Senjoyo spring, then, which resulted in filling a couple of dozen hessian sacks with litter, serves to highlight these broader issues. They are issues that no single clean-up event could hope to resolve, but which rely on the lobbying efforts of organized political campaigners within Indonesia.

In order for that to happen, a great many more people here are going to have to start caring. I’d estimate attitudes to littering here to be around 30 years behind those of a country like Australia. That’s a lot of catching up for a country President Yudhoyono aspires to see attain ‘developed nation’ status by 2025. 

Still, in the economic terms applied to modern industrialized societies, I don’t suppose the two issues are actually intrinsically linked.

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