Community-led solutions key to a revitalised Citarum River

jane holden standing at citarum river

Citarum Program Manager Dr Jane Holden.

In 2021, the Victorian Government awarded funding to Monash for our Citarum Action Research Program to create a living lab along the Citarum River, one of the world’s most polluted waterways.

Since then, in collaboration with our partners at University of Indonesia (UI), CSIRO, EAWAG, and University of Padjadjaran (UNPAD), the team has conducted intense field work to collect data for  social, biophysical, and techno-economic research, and worked to integrate disciplines and knowledge to create new research proposals for  an international living lab on location in two villages in the upper Citarum river basin.

There’s been just one problem. Because of the pandemic, the Monash team has been forced to work remotely.

“Closer up you can see the details that you miss in photos of the villages,” Citarum Program Manager, Dr Jane Holden said. “You can only experience the challenges these communities have to deal with first hand by walking through it.”

Last month this finally changed, with the Monash team visiting the river-side villages for the first time in over two years. On the trip were Program Manager, Jane Holden; Program Director, Professor Diego Ramirez Lovering; Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor Tony Wong; MSDI Research Fellow, Dr Paris Hadfield; Monash Indonesia Program Coordinator, Ms Nanda Astuti; and MADA PhD researcher, Mr Dicky Tanumihardja.

They were joined by UI Program Co-Lead, Dr Dwinanti Marthanty and Dr Reni Suwarso; UNPAD Co-Lead, Dr Kartika Hajar Kirana; and officials from West Java Provincial Government.

Thanks to the generosity of local residents and officials, the Monash, UI and UNPAD team were able to hear from the river-side communities about their experiences and see how the significant challenges associated with waste manifest in the environment.

"The section of the river that the team is working on has been straightened in the last 20 years to help with flooding in the area. But the result has been that in the dry ox-bows where the river used to flow, dumped waste and informal settlements have started to appear," Jane said.

Of the 629 villages along the Citarum River and Basin, 70% don’t have any municipal waste and sanitation services. The communities do their best, but there is limited government funding to manage the level of waste that is generated.”

Despite these challenges, the team also found that the river-side communities were deeply committed to cleaning up their river and creating new opportunities for eco-education, eco-tourism and sustainable livelihoods based on the reclamation of different types of waste as valued resources.

“It’s a good environment for those opportunities because it’s surrounded by rice paddies and rice fields and terraces. There is duck and poultry farming, lots of trees and horses, fish farms and ground level ponds. Technology for community-based solutions exists, but technology alone is not enough. Funding is needed to help this community co-design and realise new solutions for waste that incentivise and sustain waste collection and processing, and creates jobs and a local circular economy that are a reliable source of income for people.

Pak Acep Irawan and Diego Ramirez-Lovering walking in front of a village

Pak Acep Irawan (left) from Indonesia’s Directorate General of State Assets Management, and Padamukti village native, discusses the local context of solid waste and wastewater management with Citarum Program Director Professor Diego Ramirez-Lovering (right).

“Close up you can see that it would be a beautiful river walk when it’s cleaner and there’s less waste, and when the communities are benefiting economically from visitors and fresh food supply.” Jane said.

The Living Lab

During the visit Jane and the Monash team met with community and local government leaders involved in the Living Lab site. They visited two communities in particular along the river where the Living Lab pilot will take place – Cibodas and Padamukti.

The Living Lab is intended as a place-based approach to addressing river pollution through co-design, experimentation, and learning with and by the community.

It was also an opportunity to connect face-to-face with local research partners from Universitas Indonesia, Universitas Padjadjaran and West Java R&D agency to conduct workshops and share knowledge. The team were warmly welcomed by local community and in-country teams, including with a welcoming ceremony, and Sundanese martial arts performances.

As part of the visit they helped release fish into an old area of the river that has water in it and will be part of the Living Lab pilot.

“As academics we’re not there to make a profit. We’re there to understand and solve and share the knowledge we generate,” Jane said. “The success of the community is our success, which is what makes us well placed to assist.”

Jane says the local community was inspiring for the visiting academics.

I was amazed at the spirit of the community when we arrived – the hopefulness, generosity and commitment. If we could just find a way to harness the energy of their ideas and provide enough of a financial injection of funding so they can achieve their vision, they could do some amazing and productive work. There’s a lot of hope in that.”

Read more about MSDI's involvement with the Citarum River Transformation Project