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A vote for the environment?

July 5, 2009

The Bali Post newspaper is complaining that the island is experiencing a drop in productivity because of the election campaign. I’m not sure what this means exactly (and the paper doesn’t elucidate further) because, unlike in the run-up to the elections for the legislature in April, when campaigning closed streets and businesses for days at a time, there continues to be little sign that people in Bali are even aware of next week’s election. One shopkeeper told me confidently that the election was going to be on 14 August, while her colleague thought it might be September. Both refused to believe that they were supposed to be voting in less than a week. One reason for this lack of interest may be that the re-election of the current president (Soeharto’s former military chief) seems a foregone conclusion. Some also feel that it makes no difference who wins, as none of them will solve Indonesia’s most pressing problem: environmental degradation.

The country has the second largest rainforest (after Brazil) and every year it diminishes further. Much of it disappeared on Soeharto’s watch – his clan continues to log forest in Kalimantan, home to precious species including urang utans and clouded leopards. Deforestation across the country is causing devastating landslides and exacerbating water shortages in an already thirsty nation. The international climate conference that was held here in December 2007 did focus Balinese minds on the environment and on climate change in particular.” For many people here, it was the first time they’d heard of it, especially as a local issue,” a local ‘clean beach’ campaigner tells me.

The conference may have raised awareness but it has done little to change dirty habits – 70 million Indonesians (30% of the population) defecate in the open. In Bali, and throughout the country, villagers still burn their rubbish or dispose of it in a way that pollutes the land and water supplies. Villagers are selling off thousands-of-years’-old rice fields that have been in their family for centuries, for enough rupiah to buy a big new car or cable TV. Short-termism like this is worrying for the islanders’ future – migration to Java for work is already high – and for the environment. A French worker for UNICEF, based in Bali, tells me that electricity is more important to people – because it powers cable TV – than clean water and sanitation. “People who have no access to clean drinking water [about 30% of the population], will often have electricity [70% of the population has electricity] and will have bought a satellite dish for it,” he says. “In some cases, they have a stone well nearby that would give them water if they cleaned it out and unblocked it, but they are more concerned with TV.” I doubt it is as simple as this, access to photovoltaics has increased electricity coverage enormously in recent years, but water availability and sanitation will become far more pressing issues over the coming decades as the population expands, deforestation hits the water-storage capacity of soils and climate change disrupts monsoon weather patterns.

Perhaps nowhere brings this home better than the capital, Jakarta. The city, which is below sea level, gets inundated by floods every year. (An archipelago of islands off the capital, called 1000 Islands, is already disappearing – some islands survive only because of enormous concrete sea-walls surrounding them.) The clever dykes and canals that the Dutch colonialists built for Jakarta work only up to a point. The Dutch city was built further inland and on slightly higher ground. The city now extends into what was once a swamp. Freshwater supplies feed the city from three rivers that originate in the mountains above it and which are intercepted by hydrodams en route. The water that reaches the city is now so foul that it would be cheaper to re-route the entire municipal waterworks higher up than to clean the water lower down, according to engineering cost estimates. Six weeks ago, one of the large hydrodams (built by the Dutch in colonial times) collapsed. UNESCO is currently working on a model of the city under the influence of climate change, so that it can work with the government towards better preparedness.

The trouble is, the government only seeems to progress on environmental issues when under duress from the international community – including creating new environmental laws, etc, which are rarely enforced. The general public, feeling no such pressure, continue in their way to destroy the very islands on which they depend.

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