Prigi Arisandi initiated a local movement to stop industrial pollution from flowing into his city's river that provides drinking water to three million people.
Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, is heavily industrialized, with manufacturing facilities and factories lining the banks of its main waterway, the 41-kilometer Surabaya River. Since 1980, industry has regularly released thousands of tons of toxic effluent into the river. Industrial development, a key driver in Indonesia’s expanding economy, has been left unchecked by a weak and often corrupt system governing the enforcement of environmental laws. Severe pollution has followed, and the river’s biodiversity has suffered dramatically, with algae blooms and species decline threatening the future of the river ecosystem.
Compounding these challenges is a population largely unaware of the degree of the river’s toxicity and its relationship to their health. Nearly 96 percent of the city’s drinking water comes from the Surabaya River yet recent studies reveal that the concentration of mercury in the river is 100 times the tolerable limit established by the World Health Organization. Tests show that mercury appears in the blood and breast milk of women living within the estuarine area of the Surabaya River and childhood cancer rates are highest among children living along the river, where untreated water is often used for washing and bathing.
Prigi Arisandi grew up near the Surabaya River and remembers seeing it degrade when factories began operating in the region in the early 1980s. He spent much of his childhood exploring the river and went on to study biology and conservation. With a deep commitment to the communities living along the river, he founded Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (Ecoton) while still at university. The organization set out to protect the water resources and wetlands ecosystems of Indonesia.
By 2011, Arisandi had inspired thousands of people to become Surabaya’s advocates for river protection. He created the first experiential environmental education program in the region, educating the public through river tours that bring children and local residents closer to the river’s rich biodiversity and devastating pollution. Arisandi’s River Detection Program, has been implemented in more than 50 schools, teaches children how to monitor the river’s water quality and report their findings to the government. Ecoton also developed a national school network for river protection that promotes student participation in water quality monitoring and is partnering with the East Java Provincial Education Agency to introduce environmental curricula in schools across the province.
In addition, Arisandi has personally conducted regular investigations of waste dumping by industry operating on the river. Sharing his findings with environmental regulators and the media, he has helped bring about unprecedented public reporting of the pollution activities and their impact on the health of the Surabaya River. Such increased public awareness has significantly enhanced Arisandi’s ability to effect change at the government and industry levels. While effective environmental laws exist in Indonesia, the East Java provincial government’s standard practice has been non-enforcement. Industry—when caught dumping industrial effluent into the Surabaya—has simply paid the modest fines without changing its practices.
In 2007, Arisandi and Ecoton sued East Java’s governor and the province’s environmental management agency for failing to control water pollution on the Surabaya River. In April 2008, the provincial court issued a precedent-setting environmental decision, ordering the governor to implement water-quality regulations targeted at industry operating along the Surabaya, establishing a maximum daily limit for toxic releases into the river as well as a monitoring system to ensure compliance. The lawsuit represents the first time in East Java that a governor has been taken to court to change government policy.
As regional press coverage of the Surabaya River’s industrial pollution continues to increase, Arisandi entered into talks with several industrial facilities operating on the river. In turn, a Surabaya sugar factory recently invested US$220,000 in a wastewater treatment plant. The facility is now one of the most environmentally responsible factories operating on the Surabaya. Several other industrial facilities have followed suit, installing pollution controls of their own.
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