Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ecological Disaster

Rully Syumanda
Jakarta 10 April 2007

By definition, a disaster is a situation in which the community’s normal way of life fails as a consequence of extraordinarily adverse events, either natural or human-made.

Indonesia is a country that is susceptible and sensitive to disasters, both those occurring naturally and those that eventuate as a result of human activity. In the past seven years (2000-2006), there have been 392 incidents of flooding and landslides throughout Indonesia, excluding Papua, Jakarta and other capital cities. These have resulted in 2,393 victims, severe damage to more than 188,000 homes, and severe damage to about half a million hectares of land, to the extent that it is no longer usable.

The disasters have incurred total direct losses of 36 trillion Rupiah (approx US$4 billion) and indirect losses of 144 trillion Rupiah (approx US$16 billion). These figures are equivalent to 28 percent of the 2007 National Budget.

Kartodihardjo and Jhamtani describe this as a development disaster, defined as the combination of environmental crisis due to development as well as the foibles of nature herself, which are exacerbated by the destruction of natural resources and the environment, and the injustice of social development policy. Disasters such as floods, droughts and landslides are often perceived as natural disasters that are simply due to fate. In fact, these phenomena are more often caused by the cumulative and ongoing mismanagement of the environment and natural assets.

In coastal Java, from 1996 to 1999, at least 1,289 villages were affected by flooding. This number increased almost threefold (2,823 villages) by the end of 2003, an implication of the extensive damage to the coastal ecosystem due to land conversion, destructive fishing, reclamation and marine pollution (80% of industry in Java is located along the northern coast of Java).

As well as floods, droughts are also occurring with increasing frequency in Indonesia. Lately, the Indonesian dry season has become longer and more unpredictable, even considering that Indonesia is naturally located on the geographic trajectory of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). For example, although the 2003 dry season was classed as normal, there were 78 incidents of drought recorded in 11 provinces, with West and Central Java the worst affected. The main impacts of the droughts were reduction in the availability of water in both the reservoirs and river courses, with most severe impacts in Java. Subsequently, the security of clean water, food production and electricity were also affected.

Drought is also connected with forest fires, because dry weather triggers expansion of forest and land fires as well as the spread of smoke.

These disasters not only affected human lives and property, but also disrupted agricultural production, polluted water resources, and caused more extensive social problems, such as refugees and migration. Although the frequency of disasters has increased significantly in the past few years, the government has not conducted a thorough study of their patterns and causes.

There is a significant threat to the three basic necessities for sustainable life, namely water, food and energy. Regarding water, the biggest threat comes from significant escalation in the demand for potable water and the increasing limitation of its availability. This is caused by decline in water quality (due to pollution, intrusion and destruction of water sources) and water quantity (due to privatization, commoditization of water and inefficient distribution). In Jakarta, for instance, less than half of its citizens are serviced by the Drinking Water Company (PAM) network. Consequently, the majority of people extract ground water (using wells or pumps) and also buy packaged drinking water or water from itinerant traders. Meanwhile, some 70 percent of groundwater in Jakarta shows indications of being unsuitable for drinking. Water has transformed from a basic need to a commodity.

A similar situation applies to food. The loss of community sovereignty over food has ended in cases of starvation and malnutrition. In East Nusa Tenggara in 2003, more than 13,000 infants suffered from malnutrition, and as many as 36 died. The quality of Indonesia’s human resources is ranked 111 out of 177 countries (UNDP, 2004).

Indonesia’s seas are extensive and are certainly capable of becoming the largest contributor to world fisheries, with ocean fisheries yielding 3.6 million tonnes in 1997 (Burke, et al., 2002). Ironically, on a national level, fish consumption is only about 19 kg/capita/year, which is lower than Vietnam and even Malaysia, where the level of consumption reaches 33 kg/capita/year. Fishers are the most impoverished community group in Indonesia and are becoming increasingly marginalized over time.

The green revolution has eradicated 75% of 12,000 local paddy rice varieties and spawned a new dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides supplied by foreign companies. Local biodiversity and food security has been ruined. Our country has been an absolute rice importer since the mid ‘90s.

Liberalization of trade has altered the function of food from being multidimensional to being merely a trade commodity. Even the WTO defines food security as the “availability of food in the market”. In practice this concept forces people in developing countries to fulfill the food needs of developed countries through the free market mechanism, which has resulted in catastrophe in some places.

Energy sovereignty is also on the line. Transnational corporations (TNCs) have extracted 75% of our oil reserves to date. 58% of natural gas production and 70% of coal is exported each year. Meanwhile 90% of the of the Indonesian people has become dependent on refined fuel oil and 45% of households lack access to electricity. There has never been a real strategy for reducing dependence on refined fuel oil. Rather, there has been a push for continued consumption in order to benefit a handful of people.

At the same time, the choice of cheap, easily accessed and clean energy has become very scarce. The country is so submissive to the dictates of the free market, and people have become so dependent, that they are forced to buy energy at world market prices. Increase in the price of refined fuel oil, according to some research, has increased poverty by 11%. The total population of poor in Indonesia rose to 41% after escalation in fuel prices.

Increase in the prices of consumables, low purchasing power, and unavailability of jobs has not only increased the population of poor people. Much media coverage also reports a shift in the pattern of consumption, especially as regards women and children. People have been forced to reduce their nutritional intake in order to buy kerosene. Then, shrinkage of the job market combined with increase in the price of consumables has served to encourage people to participate in damaging the environment, for the sake of something to eat.

The widespread involvement of people in illegal mining that is destructive to the environment in South Kalimantan, West Java, North Sulawesi, East Kalimantan and Papua are implications of the country’s failure to safeguard its people’s livelihoods.

In view of the above phenomena, ecological destruction and climate patterns are important issues that must be addressed. Regarding the water crisis, for instance, an imminent crisis is predicted for Java-Bali. However, this phenomenon has not served as a lesson in other areas, like Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi, where water crises are occurring with increasing regularity. In the dry season we are always short of water, and in the wet season we are struck by floods. All of the infrastructure set up to manipulate the environment has failed, because the source of the problem has not been properly addressed. Crisis after crisis as a result of this mismanagement will eventually lead to increasingly apparent ecological disasters.

The ecological disasters themselves are the accumulation of ecological crises caused by the injustice and failure of the natural resource management system, which has led to the collapse of community livelihoods. Indonesia’s sustainability is currently at a critical point because ecological disasters are occurring cumulatively and simultaneously in various locations, without any significant attempt to reduce the susceptibility or sensitivity of the community to the impacts of ecological disasters.

Main Signs of Ecological Disaster

In general, ecological disaster is marked by several symptoms or signs that can be seen and felt in daily life, such as:

  1. Lack of choices for sustaining life.
  2. Failure of ecosystem function.
  3. Deterioration in the quality of life, through marginalization and impoverishment.
  4. At its extreme, eventual death.

Ecological Disasters in the Forestry Sector

In the forestry sector, ecological disasters affect all aspects of human life, especially for those living near to natural forest resources.

All signs and prerequisites of ecological disaster can be found in the forestry sector.

For example, the community living along the Siak River in Riau Province derives its livelihood from fishing. Almost all clothing, food and shelter needs are fulfilled and supported by proceeds from the river. Moreover, the Palace of the Siak Kingdom and the Agung Mosque is located on the edge of this river. The relationship between the river and the community is very strong. Dozens of homes are arrayed along the river and face it.

In the 1980s, the emergence of industries in Riau drove subsequent development of national-scale factories along the Siak River. More than 70 processing industries (oil palm, oil, wood, chemical-thinner, pulp and paper, and other processing industries) were erected and their waste disposed of in the Siak River. Industrial development and construction of roads to distribute their products encouraged the community living along the Siak River to change the direction of their houses so that they faced away from the river instead of towards it. The new orientation of houses altered the community’s culture of waste management. Previously, waste was collected and discarded at a single site away from the river. The new orientation encouraged people to throw their waste directly into the Siak River.

Uncontrolled waste disposal from various factories and the ineffectiveness of law enforcement led to pollution on an almost unimaginable scale. Physically, the river stank and there were often fish deaths. The community tried to find fish either further downstream or upstream during low tide. When it became unviable to cover the distance with fish traps and the fish catch had declined immensely, the fishing community tried farming along the river’s edge as an alternative livelihood.

Later on, some of the processing industries needed more land to ensure their supply of raw materials. Consideration of distance was of course a good reason for subsequent development concessions to be located along the river flow area. The government and companies did not provide satisfactory compensation for the community, who were left in a restricted position.

From the prosperous community group of the previous Siak Kingdom era, the Siak community was now at a point of extreme impoverishment. Skin diseases/irritation/parasites developed easily. The community had no way of improving their welfare. They could choose to work as laborers, but with the level of education and capability they had it was not possible to obtain an adequate income. Some members of the community chose to work as unskilled laborers in other countries. The remainder chose to persist at a low level of welfare, in which access to health and clean water were far from sufficient and restricted their access to education.

Development along the Siak River ultimately led to an environmental crisis, combined with destruction of natural resources and injustice in social development policy. The Siak community presents a clear portrait of ecological disaster. The Siak community lack choices for sustaining life. Failure of ecosystem functions means community life is no longer supported. Quality of welfare has declined dramatically, as has health and education.

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