[Originally published on Medium]
Indonesia is sinking and my heart weeps salty tears. My partner Mike and I are in the village Timbusloko on Java. Oceanic water drops are wetting my cheeks and this is what I see.
Water, water, and more water. Houses being challenged like Tantalus. They are up to their thresholds in water. And tomorrow the level might even be higher.
The fishermen are getting on with their business. They are used to the view. They don’t dare think too far ahead. But what about the baby who’s being breastfed, while we’re lunching on a half-sunken terrace? It’s her future home we’re talking about…
The project leader working on mangrove reforestation, Pak Eko, is practical about it. Drily he comments: “Soon, the windows will become doors.”
What about the baby who’s being breastfed?
It’s her future home we’re talking about.
We’re in Indonesia invited to an Ecoshape project: ‘Building with Nature’. Here, Java is adapting to climate change with mangrove reforestation, changes in fish farming and community education. A truly systemic approach.
An area of 2–5 km of land has been reclaimed by the sea already, due to insufficient coast protection.
Land subsidence, sinking, is another problem. It causes inland flooding. Measurements count 40 cm of land subsidence in 3 years’ time. For windows, that’s 13 cm closer to becoming a door every year!
“Soon, the windows will become doors”
— Pak Eko, project leader Wetlands International
The Building with Nature project creates mangrove defense walls against the sea by trapping sediments. Thus creating a good environment for mangrove seeds to germinate.
The biodiverse mangrove walls create a diverse ecosystem, home to young fish, crabs, and snakes. Trapping the sediment also creates land. It’s a great systemic approach and I’ll write in more detail about it soon.
However, the biggest cause of land subsidence has not (yet) been tackled by this project. In a way, we’re filling a bucket full of holes.
The biggest cause of land subsidence is groundwater extraction for drinking water. It’s a complex issue with many different concerns. Companies, governments, citizens, fishermen, and children who want to grow up in their villages, all fight for attention.
It’s a story of David versus Goliath. The nine villages are home to 3.7 thousand people. The city of Semarang nearby houses 1.5 million people.
So, what can we do? How can we deal with these water problems?
Recently, I got an idea for a practical systemic solutions recipe. The Machete Method. I wrote this article about it.
With the Machete Method, we can cut our way through dense entanglements and find clarity. The picture emerged because indigenous people are cutting their paths through dense forests with machetes.
We can do that! Take a complex problem, a dense wood of entangled situations. We can find the heart of the problem, clear the area and make space. Radical choices can be made and systemic solutions will emerge.
This way, we can improve heart-breaking conditions all over the world. Sinking villages, climate change, bushfires, poverty, and inequality.
Let’s make these radical choices out of love, not fear. We can create a vibrant, bioregional economy around basic needs. Maybe it takes another generation, but I choose to have hope…
It’s time for politicians and governments to take action. We must restore ecosystems and learn how to live within the boundaries of our planet.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. So the world will live as one.” — ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon
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So how can we apply the Machete Method to the problem of sinking villages in Indonesia? Or even for a densely populated city? Jakarta is sinking too, you know.
The Indonesian government is planning to transfer the Indonesian capital from Java to Borneo. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Jakarta area, home to nearly 30 million people, is sinking and many people are losing their homes and livelihoods.
Let’s take the Machete Method and clear some space so we can find clarity on the water issues.
Like an eagle, we’ll fly high and observe the problem. We see the villages and the sinking houses. We see the need for city drinking water. We see empty shores. The sea can easily flood the land and erode the coast.
We see groundwater extraction for drinking water. And if we fly above the city of Semarang and then on to Jakarta, we see a mass of concrete. This impenetrable layer is smothering the earth. Concrete and asphalt hinder breathing. The soil cannot drink the rainwater in monsoon season.
Make radical choices
The common denominator is clear:
We want to live with water in a healthy way.
So, what’s the elephant in the room? There might even be more than one elephant. It seems to be a herd! Let’s name all three:
- Villages and cities are sinking because of groundwater extraction
- The land is flooding because the sea can easily reach the empty shores
- Concrete and asphalt are smothering the earth, making it impossible to store water in the soil
Systemic Solutions for Drinking Water
There are short-term and long-term solutions to this issue.
- Desalinating water for drinking can be a short-term solution. Saltwater is abundantly available on an island like Java
- Restore the water cycles on the island will be a long-term solution to drinking water supply
Both solutions have been implemented in other areas of the world before. So Java might learn from this experience in their own way.
Desalinating water needs a lot of energy. Often it’s considered too expensive a solution. There is a viable way to implement it, though. I wrote about it in this article about El Hierro in Spain.
- They merged the water and energy company so they don’t compete
- They became self-sufficient with renewable energy and water
- Citizens are co-owners of the water and energy company. Thus, the proceeds benefit the local economy big time
- Investing 80 million euros means a yearly income stream of 23.5 million for the local economy
Well, that sounds interesting! And feasible. It’ll pay for those drinking water technology investments.
Water Cycle Restoration
An example of restoring water cycles in a completely desertified area is the restoration of the Sinai peninsula by the Weather Makers. It’s an ambitious restoration project impacting the rest of the world in terms of water cycles and climate.
Although this project is still in its early stages, there are many other examples of large scale restoration with permaculture principles that can provide valuable lessons. You can find the details in this article.
Many organizations are busy developing the ‘how’ of nature-based solutions. Please, create partnerships. It’s time to innovate, decide and implement. Get on with it!
Phasing-out Groundwater Extraction
As a next step, we can phase-out groundwater extraction completely. We should not be radical here. We must not let people die of thirst because there’s no drinking water.
But we can make a plan and timeline to stop groundwater extraction. It’s much easier to create a support base for such a plan if there are already alternative solutions being implemented.
Systemic Solutions for Eroded Coastlines
Solutions for empty shores, where the sea can easily reach and erode the land, are also available.
- Mangrove restoration can be done in areas where access to the sea is not really necessary
- Natural dams in the sea can be erected as protection against waves
- Hard dams in the sea can be applied where whole cities need to be protected. We can make sure the right hard materials are used. The ones that help restore the ocean. And provide homes for shells and other sea creatures
In all of the above cases, it’s very important to involve the communities living in these areas. We should ensure productivity for humans. Only then communities will respect the new solutions and not destroy ecosystems again.
We can produce food in natural fish ponds. The mangroves and mud create the ideal environments for an abundance of crabs and fish. We can combine a hard dam with shellfish or seaweed production, 3D sea farming, so people can earn a living.
Systemic Solutions for Impenetrable City Surfaces
Concrete and asphalt have dominated our city areas for decades. But the time has come to rethink those choices. We need to adapt to climate change. We need to be prepared for overloads of water or shortages of water.
What might be solutions?
- Nature-based material innovation is key. Let’s innovate with mycelium-like materials or algae-based materials. We can find the right blend of soaking up and releasing characteristics to apply for roads and other hard surfaces
- We can dense the buildings in a smart way and use the space for healthy living soil. Plants, bushes, and trees will naturally soak up water and release it when needed
- We should create city jungles where biodiversity will flourish
In this article from ‘The Guardian’, we find some examples of great city solutions. Don’t be fooled by the countryside picture or terms such as ‘dumb’ and ‘low-tech’. These solutions have been applied in big cities.
Please, city planners, architects, and designers, educate yourself! And apply nature-based solutions to your own work.
Work with all stakeholders
It’s important to zoom out again before making choices. Make sure we judge the situation after implementation carefully. We need to see if the solutions(s) might have negative effects on the rest of the systemic picture.
Then we can prioritize them on positive impact and effort.
Implement the one(s) with the most impact and the least effort first. Communicate clearly what is happening. Harvest the low hanging fruit and build upon the resulting enthusiasm.
Tackling resistance is an important task as well. Some people will only see their own interests and won’t like change. Wise communication can solve that. Be transparent. Cherish the trust given. Explain the vision clearly.
Name the consequences for all, so people can have compassion. Make sure all stakeholders meet each other and become close enough to feel the compassion in their hearts.
It’s becoming more and more clear that changes are inevitable! We cannot pretend that ‘business as usual’ is an option! Villages and cities are sinking. Babies growing up want to have a home.
I’m convinced radical choices are key to decision making.
Who dares to tackle complex issues with radical decision making? Stand up, please. We need you!
If you want to connect, you can find me on LinkedIn or somewhere in the world, joyfully working on nature-based solutions.
Thank you, Mike, for joining me on these adventures. You add loads of wise energy to my solutions for the Indonesian islands we love so much.
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