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How household gardens are improving sanitation in Indonesia

In Bintan, a low-cost, underground sewage system is tackling wastewater pollution by turning human waste into clean fertilizer for individual family gardens.

In a village in the Kawal district in Tanjung Pinang, Bintan, chili, a local favourite, is being grown above an underground wastewater management system that aims to improve sanitation for rural households in Indonesia.

Since it was introduced in 2014, the system, called Safe Water Gardens (SWG), has quickly gained popularity as a solution to wastewater pollution, which often creates a foul-smelling, hazardous environment in villages with little access to waste processing facilities.

“Previously, the wastewater situation wasn’t very good, especially because of the bad smell from the dirty water. We found out people were trying fix this problem in the village, and are happy to have this system built for us,” said Misnoh, a 45-year-old contract builder and father of two, as he watched a team of participants from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Leadership Programme install SWG outside his home. 

The SWG system is based on a United Nations-approved model that was developed in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh. Through this individual home sanitation method, wastewater from household showers and toilets are kept underground, flowing into a septic tank where waste is converted into nutrients. This nutrient-rich water then enters a horizontal leach pipe that drips onto a gravel bed piled with course and porous sand. Plants grown above the bed are able to absorb the nutrients, which otherwise enter and pollute groundwater systems and make water unsafe for drinking.

Children are often not allowed to play outdoors because of the health risks arising from contaminated ground water in rural Indonesia. Image: Eco-Business

In rural Indonesia, where there is a lack of central wastewater processing facilities or basic sanitation systems, wastewater from household toilets and kitchens flows directly into the outside environment. This results in polluted water collecting around houses, which increases the risk of diseases caused by exposure to sewage and contaminated drinking water. Children are often prohibited from playing outdoors because parents are worried about them falling sick.

Every day in Indonesia, 370 children die from diseases linked to poor sanitation, such as diarrhoea. Across Southeast Asia, nearly a billion people lack access to basic sanitation while 140 million remain out of reach from safe drinking water. 

Munsari, a 50-year-old father of three, said he had learnt about SWG from neighbours who said it would help tackle wastewater pollution around their homes. His wife, 43-year-old Yati, added that she was looking forward to growing chili in her new garden, which would normally cost her almost $10 at the market.

Having SWG installed in their homes is a source of pride for women in the village, who plant flowers in the gardens to beautify their homes and grow cash crops that would otherwise be too expensive to cultivate or buy. 

A family of four in Bintan spends around $80 a month on food, which takes up a quarter of their average household income. Most villagers are not able to afford the SWG systems that cost more than what they earn in a month—an estimated $400 to build. This is why Marc van Loo, founder of LooLa Adventure Resort and Constant van Aerschot, executive director of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) Singapore, are looking to scale-up the SWG initiative and improve access to sanitation in many more villages across Indonesia.

“This is low-hanging fruit for businesses, done through simple technology using simple measures.”

Kelly Daniels, a participant in the WBCSD Leadership Program

A sustainable business model

Van Loo, whose eco-resort LooLa was awarded the Most Inspiring Responsible Tourism Operator of 2012 by social enterprise Wild Asia, built the first SWG on the grounds of LooLa in an effort to improve the resort’s own wastewater processing system. He later decided to implement SWG in a nearby village when he found out that many children had fallen ill due to polluted groundwater. 

Soon, SWGs were introduced to visitors and resort guests as a community involvement project that promoted sustainability and helped to provide affordable sewage solutions for rural families in Bintan. 

“Water and sanitation are, of course, key to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and we all know that good village solutions are ideally locally produced and locally owned,” said van Loo. “SWGs enabled LooLa to offer our guests an opportunity to get involved in these family-sized projects, so our guests provided the funding while LooLa provided our expertise in a classical win-win setup which saw local families receiving lifelong safe sanitation systems.” 

So far, major companies such as Singapore-based palm oil firm Musim Mas, global plastics company Borouge and Dutch multinational bank Rabobank have placed their support behind the SWG initiative by incorporating it into their corporate social responsbility (CSR) plans and even providing their own employees with SWGs. 

“[SWG] definitely improves the lives of every family,” said Kelly Daniels, a participant in the WBCSD Leadership Program. “This is low-hanging fruit for businesses, done through simple technology using simple measures.”

Fellow participant Taufan Chrisna, sustainability compliance manager at pulp and paper company Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL), said: “What business offers to sustainability is a solution, which is exactly what SWG is doing here in Bintan.” 

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