#53 - A dug solution to drought in an Indonesian village

By Hartatik, Semarang City, Indonesia

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The drought at the end of 2012 is a sad story that will likely never be forgotten by residents of Patemon, a village at the foot of Mount Merbabu in Java, Indonesia. But it has also left them with insights they continue to carry today and are especially important since climate change could further reduce the availability of a fundamental resource: water. 

Climate change is already causing varying rainfall patterns , in turn affecting water availability in Indonesia, according to several experts interviewed for this piece. This could exacerbate the situation in Patemon, where residents, as far back as 2012, have already suffered from water shortages as springs started to dry up. 

In response, the villagers have implemented a simple but effective technology: the building of infiltration wells to store rainwater and thus replenish groundwater aquifers in dry periods. 

Their story can serve as an inspiration and reference for people everywhere as an adaptation effort to the impacts of global climate change.

Declining water

Patemon, a village located around 750 metres above sea level, is inhabited by some 4,000 people who largely work as farmers and breeders. During the drought in 2012, Joko Waluyo, their community leader, began to hear complaints from residents about the lack of clean water.

The 60-year-old is responsible for managing the residents' access to potable water, both for their everyday food and drink and for the nourishment of their livestock. Joko tells me that he remembers very well how the people struggled and fought over clean water. Every time clean water supplies were delivered, it was only a matter of hours before people ran out of water again. About six to seven tanks of water, each with a capacity of 5,000 litres, were distributed every day.

The decline in spring and river water discharge in the Central Java region has reached an alarming level, according to Asep Mulyana, a water adaptation specialist at the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

This is due in part to the land’s decreasing capacity to absorb and store rainwater, he says, but another aggravating factor is the effect of climate change on the frequency and volume of rainfall. 

Climate change can lead to drought in at least two connected ways in Patemon, says Rizaldi Boer, head of the climatology laboratory at Bogor Agricultural University in Indonesia. By changing rainfall patterns, it can reduce the sources of water in the first place. At the same time, longer term changes can lead to a decline of water resources such as groundwaters which would otherwise provide a buffer to these periods of reduced rainfall. 

Joko says his village’s water shortage problem was the opposite of what he experienced as a child. The river then - which is 200 meters away from his house - was overflowing with water. He has never experienced drought as severe as the one seen in 2012. “I couldn’t just keep quiet, conditions could not be left like this,” he says.

Infiltration wells

In 2014, Joko decided to gather several village leaders to find a solution. They came up with an idea to make their own rainwater catchment by digging up a part of their own backyards. At the same time, the Qarryah Toyyibah Farmers Association (SPPQT) and water service and sanitation program run by USAID entered Patemon village and introduced the water conservation technology of building infiltration wells.

Infiltration wells are structures made to collect, capture and absorb rainwater. The wells in Patemon are two meters long, two meters wide, and two meters deep. The sides of the well are walled with bricks. On the floor of the well, a 30cm thick layer of gravel is placed and covered with palm fibre. The opening of the well is covered with concrete, so that the land above it can still be used as an open space. Rainwater enters through a special ditch, which passes into a control tub to filter rubbish and settle the sludge.

Such wells are one of the most inexpensive and efficient ways to increase groundwater sources. The water seeps into the aquifer, the layer of soil that can store water, and can be used during the dry season to fill shallow wells commonly used by the community. The water that is caught in this upstream area also increases the flow of the spring below to meet the needs of the people living downstream.

Patemon was the first place the technology was implemented in Central Java. Following its success, USAID's Indonesia Urban Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (IUWASH) project is now replicating water conservation programs through infiltration wells in 35 districts and cities throughout the rest of the country.

"This simple technology is very promising in restoring water sources. The infiltration wells made by the residents have a direct impact on the Senjoyo spring which is downstream from the village of Patemon," Mulyana from USAID said.

Fast benefits

Mulyana argues building infiltration wells is considered a more efficient way of conserving spring water than tree-planting. Within three years, real changes were felt by the community.

No more runoff water flows or stagnates in residents gardens because the rainwater is directed to the infiltration wells. Not all villagers were immediately on board with the idea of building wells across their land, Joko recalls. Some even asked for compensation for the land used for construction, he says. But thanks to a small group of early adopters, most changed their mind and started to appreciate the regenerative benefits of this simple technology.

“By 2020, there were 320 infiltration wells in Patemon village," says village head Puji Rahayu.

This water conservation movement was also followed by neighbouring villages, such as Tingkir, Need, Jetak, Noborejo, Kedungduren and Jethak. At least 870 infiltration wells have been built throughout the Tengaran District. 

The new water conservation technique has spread across the Mount Merbabu area, but can be replicated in many other parts of the world where the land is similarly flat and climate change poses similar challenges to the lives and livelihood of the locals.

When I visited Patemon around a year ago, I felt that the people there were now much more open-minded than six years before, when most of them effectively refused to build infiltration wells in their own yards. 

Their achievement is extraordinary, because they are thinking not only about the good of their own community, but also the future of the people living in the downstream areas.

Hartatik is an environmental journalist from Indonesia. She writes for the local news site Suara Merdeka. In 2018 and 2019, she was awarded a reporting grant for Asia Pasific from the Earth Journalism Network. 

This post was funded by a climate investigation grant awarded to From A Climate Correspondent by the European Federation for Science Journalism (EFSJ) and funded by the BNP Paribas Foundation.

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Who we are

From A Climate Correspondent is a weekly newsletter exploring the climate crisis from around the globe run by four journalists. We regularly feature guest writers.

Lou Del Bello is an energy and climate journalist based in Delhi, India.

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Purple Romero is an climate change and human rights journalist based in Hong Kong.

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