How do you bring a river back to life?
A pragmatic social entrepreneur working with business, media and communities to revive Indonesia’s source of life.
On first sight Prigi Arisandi comes across as an ordinary Indonesian, a doting father with a lovely family living in the outer suburbs of the sprawling city of Surabaya. Spend a day with him and you won’t fail to appreciate your next cup of pure drinking water, a vital necessity of daily life for 7.25 billion people in this planet today.
A year ago, my team read Indonesian Eco-Heroes, a wonderful book by our mentor and advisor Gouri Mirpuri. Since then we had always wanted to meet Prigi. What had struck us about him was his pragmatic, two-fold approach — collaborating with companies, communities and local consumers to tackle pressing water challenges while inspiring the next generation to live in harmony with nature.
Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia and its main waterway — the 41-kilometer Surabaya River (part of the Brantas river basin), supplies 96% of the drinking water for 3 million people in the city.
Prigi spent his childhood swimming and playing in its cool, clear waters by his village and watching the entire community thrive happily on its banks. One day when he came back to his village after a few years in university he was in for a shock — his beloved river had become heavily polluted due to unchecked industrialisation and illegal human encroachments on its banks. Mercury levels in the river were 100 times the tolerable limit established by the World Health Organization.
He immediately established the social enterprise Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (ECOTON) to promote environmental justice for present and future generations, especially in sustainable wetland resource management.
That was the year 1996. On a beautiful warm August morning 18 years since, Prigi is today taking us on a small, rickety boat to buy fresh fruits from a village on the opposite bank of the same river whose fate he’s helped transform.
“I hope you can swim?”, he asks tongue-in-cheek just as we begin to clamber carefully into our seats expecting the boat to topple over anytime.
His idea behind making us paddle across is to help us experience how close the river really is to the communities and how good stewardship of the river can create economic, health and social benefits.
We alternate between stretches of hard paddling, negotiating bends and soaking in the tranquil balance between man and nature that has been restored in this stretch of an ancient river which was once an entry port to the Majapahit Kingdom dating back to the 13th century AD.
Along the way, we stop to meet an assortment of local communities that Prigi has helped setup to drive an economic incentive for the preservation of the river. First we meet Anang Samsul Arifin, a civil engineer turned artist who runs a school which teaches people across all ages the traditional textile art form of batik. Anang and his students use inspirations from the river and natural colours from its banks to create their art pieces, which fetch rewarding prices in international markets.
Next we meet Andreas, a long-time friend of Prigi whose bio-gas plant helps local families save US$6 a month in energy bills and incentivises the village folk to not dispose of cow waste into the river. Cattle waste often accumulates significantly downstream and is a big reason for river pollution.
On our final stop we head down to another tributary of the Surabaya river, this time a bit closer to the Java sea. Prigi has brought us here to experience the full impact of industrial pollution downstream. The dissolved oxygen levels in this patch of the river is less than 3mg/l. This means the water is hypoxic — many marine plants and animals here will not survive.
Prigi has been tirelessly working with his wife, who has a PhD in River Biology, and colleagues at ECOTON to educate local industries of the impact of river pollution and advising them on how to change their practices to become more environmentally sustainable.
In 2012 after working closely with Prigi and his team at ECOTON, the governor of East Java, Dr. Soekarwo, agreed to create a new sanctuary zone for native fish on the Surabaya River. A recent one-year research project on the Surabaya, which revealed that the river’s water quality is the healthiest it has been since at 2002.
For all his efforts to initiate a local movement to collaboratively work with various segments of society and clean his city’s river, Prigi was awarded the Goldman Prize, a top global environmental honour.
It was a wonderful learning experience to meet Prigi and his team. His pragmatism and networks of similar, incredible heroes shall guide us in our future projects in this beautiful country whose abundant rivers are its very source of life.
Article by Ashwin Subramaniam — Co-founder and Projects Director and Laura Allen — CEO & Business Development Director, Gone Adventurin’