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'Wait until surrounding is quiet': Villagers in Indonesia's Kalimantan make do with primitive floating toilets

Channel News Asia - July 31, 2022

Kiki Siregar, Banjar, South Kalimantan – Every time Ramjaena wants to use the toilet, she first checks if there is anyone in the vicinity of her home.

Like most residents of Paku Alam village which lies on the tributary of Martapura river, her house is built on stilts and situated along the waterway.

In front of her house is a small, wooden walkway which leads to a 1.5 sq m latrine made of hardwood, also built on stilts.

A piece of cloth is used as a substitute for a built-in door to allow for privacy when she or her family members have to use the latrine. Their waste is deposited directly into the river.

But there is no total privacy. "What falls (into the river) ... It's embarrassing," said Ramjaena, 35, who goes by one name.

In Indonesia's South Kalimantan province, there are about 150 rivers and thousands of such latrines. Locals typically refer to them as "floating toilets".

This is a problem in the region of over 4 million people as they end up polluting the water, which is the lifeblood of the residents.

Ramjaena and other villagers also told CNA that they are uncomfortable when they need to answer the call of nature in such a way. Their preference is to have proper toilets.

Environmentalists have urged the government to look into the problem.

However, it is easier said than done and despite several programmes to eliminate these floating latrines, many are still in use.

Why floating toilets are in use

Kisworo Dwi Cahyono, executive director of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Walhi South Kalimantan said that historically, South Kalimantan and its former capital of Banjarmasin have always been known for their numerous rivers and tributaries.

"This means that culturally and traditionally, people have not been far from the rivers ... It is a habit of the communities to conduct their activities in the river such as bathing, urinating and defecating, and even commuting (by boat)," said Cahyono.

Hanifah Dwi Nirwana, head of the provincial environment agency noted that most people along the rivers of South Kalimantan have come to rely on floating toilets over the years.

She said that the local government does not know the exact number of such households. "It is an old habit for people to live near the river... They have limited access to clean water if they live on land," said Nirwana.

She added that it is part of South Kalimantan's traditional way of life, as people have a habit of washing their clothes in the rivers and mingling with neighbours.

This way of life is especially visible in the early morning in Banjarmasin when villagers bathe along the Martapura river or row to the famous floating market Lok Baintan, which is a popular tourist attraction.

However, locals interviewed by CNA said that the phenomenon is not just due to their traditional way of life.

Ramjaena of Paku Alam said the main reason why she has been using a floating toilet is due to financial difficulties. "My toilet is like that because I don't have money (to build a proper toilet inside the house)," she said.

One needs to fork out about 5 million rupiah (US$333) to build a proper toilet, which is above the provincial minimum monthly wage of about 3 million rupiah.

It is out of reach for her and her husband who are farmers with four children.

Idup, who also lives in Paku Alam told CNA that he can only afford to have a floating toilet. "I wait until the surrounding is quiet when I want to use it," said the farmer who is in his 70s. Like many other Indonesians, he goes with one name.

Some families even have to share a floating toilet.

Community head Abdus Samad is among those who are in this group. "We share the toilet because we don't have money. So we collected money together (to build a shared toilet)."

Floating toilets contribute to river pollution

In the past, floating toilets may not have been considered a problem as there were fewer of them, said Cahyono the environmentalist. But as the population in South Kalimantan grew, so did the number of floating latrines.

Based on the provincial government's research, the river water contains high levels of bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), a type of faecal coliform often found in the intestines of animals and humans which can cause illness.

"Not only in the Martapura river but also upstream, the water is below the standard quality," Nirwana of the South Kalimantan environmental agency told CNA.

There are many parameters to assess water cleanliness, she said, such as the amount of dissolved oxygen.

"If the dissolved oxygen amount is low, the fishes cannot live well. In the past, when we went fishing in the river, it was easy to catch a big fish or big prawns. But now it has become harder. "So the ecosystem is disturbed," said Nirwana.

She added the agency aims to achieve the United Nations 2030 sustainable development goals targets, one of which is clean water and sanitation. "Our water quality is still not good. It is about 54.25 (on the water quality index), so it is average."

In Indonesia, water quality is assessed based on certain criteria such as the amount of dissolved oxygen and faecal coliform in water as directed by a ministerial regulation.

A score of between 0 to 50 means that the water quality ranges from very deficient to deficient. If the score is between 51 to 100, it means that the water quality is moderate to very good.

Nirwana noted that this also affects the province's score on the overall environmental index, which currently is around 71, out of a maximum score of 100.

The overall environmental index comprises the water quality index, seawater quality index, peat ecosystem quality index, air quality index, and land quality index.

Banjarmasin-based urban design expert Akbar Rahman called for all floating toilets to be torn down. "The floating latrines cause the river to become a place for faeces which can increase water pollution.

"Especially because the residents who live on the river banks also use the river water for bathing, washing, urinating and defecating. So the water used by people is unhealthy," said Rahman.

However, Cahyono the environmentalist noted that floating toilets are not the only source of water pollution in the province. "We shouldn't just blame the latrines because there are also industries and mining here," he said.

Is removing floating latrines the silver bullet?

The local authorities have rolled out various programmes to eliminate floating toilets.

For instance, the Banjar regency government introduced a programme in 2016, with the aim of removing 1,000 floating latrines. It removed 1,019 floating latrines by 2020 but there are still around 2,400 remaining in the regency.

Samad, the community head in Paku Alam village, Banjar regency, recounted that he was approached by officials sometime ago. The latter wanted to know how many villagers were using floating toilets and needed new toilets to be constructed.

But the regency-level initiative has not been a game changer, he said.

The government did build a proper public toilet in the neighbourhood. But as it is a 30-minute walk from his home, he rarely uses it. Thus, he continues to use the shared floating latrine near his home.

"We really need a toilet so my family feels comfortable and if I have guests, they also feel comfortable," said Samad.

The main problem is limited budget, said Nirwana of the provincial environmental agency.

"The challenge is in order to eliminate the floating toilets, we of course have to replace them with new ones which fulfil the technical requirements for waste management so the waste can be discharged into the river.

"Therefore, one of the most important things is the funding," she said.

She also said there is a need to continuously educate people on the importance of keeping the rivers clean so that when they are given new toilets, they will actually use them.

Nirwana revealed that some villagers decided to rebuild their floating toilets, even though the government has constructed proper ones.

"We still have to approach the community and educate the community. The problem isn't automatically solved when the floating latrines are removed."

Currently, the provincial government is running a programme called 'Beautiful Martapura'. It aims to clean up the Martapura river which flows into five different regencies and is considered to be the backbone of many tributaries.

The programme comprises cleanup activities, public education, providing trash bins and eliminating floating toilets.

Rahman, the urban design expert, said if financial constraints are the problem, the government could build more shared toilets.

"The point is, the latrines shouldn't be on the river anymore, they should be built on land.

"In the initial stage, they can build shared toilets for several families," said Rahman who is also a lecturer at Lambung Mangkurat University in Banjarbaru, the capital of South Kalimantan.

Over in Paku Alam village, Ramjaena just hopes that the government would act quicker.

"I want a real toilet because it will be comfortable to have one inside (the house), so nobody can see (when I use it)," she said. – CNA/ks(aw)

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/indonesia-south-kalimantan-floating-toilet-waste-pollution-environment-284199