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Learning lessons from Indonesia’s Building with Nature programme

PHOTO CREDIT: Wetlands International

The initiative in Indonesia’s Demak district seeks to find ways to minimize the impact of tidal sea waves in the absence of protective layers of natural sea ‘walls’, which as the project profiles is the lining of protective layers of mangroves to act as natural barriers deterring the impact of the huge sea surges that ravages the coastline villages.

By Salam Rajesh

Nations battling with the forces of Nature, where Nature seeks to retake its space over land and sea, are resourcing all their efforts at finding ways to minimize the impact of different weather and climate extremes that are continuously ravaging different pockets of the globe, ranging from sea coasts to floodplains, the Himalayas, the Arctic Circle, the dry forests of Australia and the United States, the low lying countries in Asia-Pacific region, and many more.

At the same time, there are emerging stories of how people are fighting back to resist the onslaught of the fury of Nature. One of these stories comes from Indonesia where coastal villages are being ravaged by sea surges that are far from usual. That is the story outlined in Wetlands International and Ecoshape Foundation’s latest report (February, 2022), “Building with Nature in Indonesia: Restoring an eroding coastline and inspiring action at scale (2015-2021)”.

The publication profiles an interesting effort by local communities with support from external agencies to fight back the fury of Nature so that they may continue to live in their territory of life without the least fear of having to abandon their ancestral domain as Nature overcomes them.

Indonesia has become a pioneer in embracing the concept of ‘Building with Nature’, says authors Femke Tonneijck, Fokko van der Goot, and Fred Pearce. The concept, as the authors say, is “an approach to infrastructure and environmental management that aims to work with the forces of nature, rather than opposing them”.

The report summarizes the insights and lessons from a landscape scale implementation of the Building with Nature approach between 2015 and 2021 in Demak, a coastal district in Central Java province that has been ‘plagued by erosion, flooding and devastating land loss that in places has extended for several kilometers inland’.

Building with Nature solutions offer a resilient alternative, or complement, to conventional hard water infrastructure in reducing the risks of disasters and adapting to climate change, the authors say.

The solutions adopted in the process can deliver water infrastructure to protect coasts, deltas, rivers and lakes under rapidly changing conditions, while benefiting nature, society and the economy. In particular, the report states that ‘these solutions can meet the need to repair and protect landscapes that are wide open to erosion and flooding through lacking protective vegetation’.

In 2011, the island nation of Japan was severely ravaged by giant tsunamis unimagined in the preceding years, following a massive earthquake. The entire eastern coastline of the country was impacted hugely by the incoming tidal waves, destroying homes and properties. Coastlines in Indonesia, Malaysia, and several Polynesian low lying countries were battered by the incoming giant sea waves. India’s coastlines, too, had fared immense damages from nature’s fury.

The initiative in Indonesia’s Demak district seeks to find ways to minimize the impact of tidal sea waves in the absence of protective layers of natural sea ‘walls’, which as the project profiles is the lining of protective layers of mangroves to act as natural barriers deterring the impact of the huge sea surges that ravages the coastline villages.

The spirit within the Demak community to fight back is what shapes the project. “We are not leaving, this is our home and we plan to stay”, says Slamet, a fisher resident of Timbulsloko village, one amongst the many coastline villages continuously ravaged with flooding and damages from seas surges, tsunamis and cyclones.

The Wetlands International and Ecoshape Foundation’s line of action on ground is to develop resilient villages that can withstand the impact of sea surges and other extreme weather events. The first barrier is lines of mangrove plantations to act as natural barriers. Mangrove restoration is aimed at several objectives including livelihood improvement through aquaculture and harvesting of fruits, and the availability of food and fodder sources.

Mangroves are known to absorb the shock of tidal sea waves, breaking the current to allow linear flow past the mangrove lining, thus minimizing the impact of the sea surges. Several linings of the mangrove plantations, as natural barrier, thus can break the impact from the force of incoming tsunamis. Islands with good mangrove growths escaped damages which was evident in ‘defenseless’ Indonesian coastlines.

Going through the pace of the impact of the project, the report while assessing the social returns is of the opinion that the Building with Nature measures enhanced the resilience of coastal communities. The social cohesion within and among coastal villages in Demak increased and the villagers established a Community Ocean Forum to further engage on their priorities in conservation and livelihood strategies.

Similarly reflecting on the natural returns as a result of the project, the report states that ‘restored mangroves along coasts and rivers attenuate waves and hold sediment in place, thus helping to counterbalance and delay subsidence and land loss. Fish and bird populations and diversity have increased upon mangrove recovery’.

On the financial returns from the project, the report concludes that ‘best practices as introduced by Coastal Field Schools boosted aquaculture productivity and income. Mangrove recovery enhanced fisheries and increased wild catch. Alternative livelihoods were developed to adapt to the changing environment, including eco-tourism and non-timber products’.

It is largely seen that the mangrove restoration project in Demak not only addresses resilience to weather and climate extremes, whereas it also looks at alternatives to regain the ground lost on livelihoods due to frequent flooding and inundation by sea surges.

The Demak experience is a lesson that can be learnt by the fishing community of Loktak Lake in Manipur where the process of the lake’s ecosystem degradation had weakened the livelihood capacity of the fishers while also destabilizing the ecological profile of the wetland.

A practical methodology to control the sediment inflow into the lake and the incursion of invasive plant species needs to be worked out fast enough to ease the negative impact on the lake’s ecology. At the same time, the strategy must address ways to enhance the livelihood capacity of the fishers through innovative aquaculture practices adapted to the lake ecosystem.

 (The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be reached at [email protected])

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