Prigi Arisandi is leading efforts to clean up the Surabaya River, a water source for three million people. Learn more about how he's inspiring young people and taking legal action to stop industrial pollution in the Q&A below.
Q. You grew up on the Surabaya River. Do you remember it always being polluted, even when you were a child, or is your memory of it being clean?
A. When I was about 6 years old, the river was clean. My dad used to push me in the river to teach me to swim. I started to notice the pollution in the early 1980's, a few years after the industry arrived. The river started to accumulate a layer of pulp and sediment; there was a bad odor, and dead fish would float on top. And people drink this water – 96% of our region's water comes from the Surabaya River.
Q. Can you describe how you have succeeded in convincing the government to monitor and restrict the industry dumping?
A. It's difficult for all developing countries to care for the environment due to our bad economies. Our government dedicated almost no money to environmental protection, there was no regulation. But government is not the enemy – and industry isn't the enemy either. Communication is key –I told the industry that they can do business here but they have to have a commitment to the river and treat it right.
I'm working with industry to put in clean filters that will treat the water. The government now has weekly or biweekly patrols and the industry doesn't know the schedule. I still test the water myself but the government now has an officer who patrols the water industry. I trust the government – we have to trust each other to work together. And the quality of the water is getting better and in the last two years there are no longer the dead fish like there used to be.
Q. Can you tell us about how you involve children in your work?
A. Children are especially vulnerable to the water pollution since they are growing. A huge number of kids who live near the river are mentally disabled and have high rates of cancer as a result of the water. We teach the children that they can protest to the government and ask for the safety of their drinking water. The more wealthy people from the city, they have the purchasing power, so I encourage them to boycott: I show them the list of factories that pollute the river and tell them that if they buy the products made by these factories, they're polluting the river as well.
The most important thing is to make people have a stronger connection with the river. The people who don't know the river won't love it. We take kids on the river to plant trees along the banks, and we lead "River Detective Tours" where we borrow a boat and take about 25 kids and travel about 22km along the river. The first 10km is dirty and the last 10km is clean. At the end of the trip, I ask which they prefer and they say clean. This ignites their passion. You can drink water from a plastic bottle and not think about where it came from, what a long journey it had to the earth from the sky. You have to teach people the value of water; that it is fairly difficult to make.
Q. What has been the most difficult aspect of your work to overcome?
A. Improvisation – you need to know how to talk to the government, industry, community members, etc. You must always be like the water and take the shape of whatever you're dealing with. But I enjoy what I do. There is a risk to everything that you must realize and always prepare for, but every problem has a solution. You must think and solve. If we didn't have problems our heads would be empty!