Asam Garam
Interview
19 Oct 2021

“Rivers are a reflection of our actions on land”: Sungai Watch’s fight to protect our rivers

We spoke to Gary Bencheghib in the midst of a cleanup to talk more about Bali’s water crisis, plans of expansion and recent findings on a standstill Bali.

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Ghina Hana Sabrina
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Asam Garam
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Sungai Watch is on a mission. The Bali-based organization which focuses on community river cleanups has collected 5.2 tons (and counting!) of waste as of 2020 in order to prevent plastic pollution from entering the ocean with their trash barriers. What’s more, they’ve also focused on providing the right data to further support the work that’s being done – as well as to start a conversation with corporations, governments, and the local public – as seen on their first public River Plastic Report. As they’ve recently reached their 100th barrier, their journey to reach their next milestone has just begun. We spoke to Sungai Watch’s founder, ​​Gary Bencheghib, in the midst of a cleanup to talk more about Bali’s water crisis, plans of expansion and recent findings on a standstill Bali. 

Sungai Watch started in 2020 as a project under Make a Change World. Could you tell us more about this project? 

Sungai Watch actually started 10 months ago, under the project Make a Change. It started with my passion to clean the rivers after experiencing the very dirty Citarum River. My brother and I went down the Citarum – it was considered the world’s dirtiest river – and when you look at some of the conditions that we witnessed, it was literally like a moving landfill of trash with trash burning every 300m, so that really shook me and I had to think simple solutions to stop the flow of plastics into the ocean. Make a Change is a media company, we’ve been very busy bringing plastic pollution to online news with expeditions and crazy ideas like running across the US with recycled shoes to going down the Citarum River. Sungai Watch is the operational arm, where we spend 100% of every single day on the rivers of Bali.

What was the turning point that finally pushed you to create this organization in Bali?

On the Citarum River, we were really looking for the most powerful visuals to shock the world and that’s why we built 2 plastic bottle kayaks to get on this river. The idea was to get floaties to float on the trash that was going down this river to show that trash can have a second life. I think it’s just naturally, through experiencing what we’ve experienced, and not being able to turn a blind eye at the problem and at the scale of it, that we really thought, well, we have to do something. So why not start on our island home in Bali where rivers are also very dirty. To make something that’s localized, community-driven that can be highly scalable across the archipelago.

Among 391 rivers in Bali, it is estimated that only half of them flow freely. What are your thoughts on this?

A lot of rivers up in north Bali are completely dry and Bali is definitely experiencing a major water crisis. We’re pumping out wells at an alarming rate, for villas, tourism, and agriculture uses as well – well I would say mainly for tourism uses. We’ve seen the consequences of what it has on watersheds. Part of the north and south peninsula are entirely dry. Most of the rivers that we’re actually cleaning up in Badung, Tabanan, and Denpasar are still running and we don’t just look at rivers, but also the subak system as one of the main sources of water flows. Year by year, it really changes whether the subak irrigates the rice fields – so it’s always an endless conversation with local farmers or pekaseh to see where is the best strategy to place our barriers. But our dream would be to cater to every single river because so much of the rivers are fully dried up like in Karangasem or Buleleng, that means that whenever it would rain, so much of the trash that has been building up on this side of this river bank, that’s where you have endless amounts that end up in the ocean.So, part of our philosophy is not just setting up the barriers, the barriers have been our biggest activation tool to get into villages – but showing that we could stop the flow. However, it starts way before that on land, where people would change their mindset into thinking about rivers as garbage dumps.

Sungai Watch has done river cleanups on several locations, from Tukad Yeh Penet to Mangrove Forest. What factors were taken into account when deciding which locations need urgent action?

Typically, we’re very set as to the areas that we’ve already cleaned up. When we clean up an area, we would typically go 200% to really clean it up fully. So that means looking at the smaller streams for irrigation and subak that will go into the rice fields. Really understanding the full on geographic of the desa (village) and pinpointing where there could be illegal dumps that had been accumulating over the years. The reason for us to cleanup illegal dumps is to work with the local government, with the kelian adat so the cultural leaders of that village can impose sanctions.

Right now in 5 villages, the government has imposed around Rp 250,000 – Rp 2,000,000 sanctions for anybody throwing their waste into the river, which proves to really lower the amount of trash that ends up in the river in the first place. I would say that we’re moving by location and our actions are based upon how to make the most amount of impact on the areas that we’re currently catering to. 

In the case of dramatic emergencies, we’ve done crazy cleanups in Dreamland Pecatu where we cleaned 200 tons of trash in 3 days and it was a crazy canal that had been entirely clogged up with trash. In the Mangrove Forest in Denpasar, we were mapping one of the river mouths of one of the rivers that we were going to protect and we stumbled across 22 hectares of mangroves that were entirely drowning in plastic. So that’s 30 football fields with 1 m deep of plastic. Unfortunately there are so many spots like that around Indonesia, but I think we need to focus slowly and real impact comes by working with the local community, local government and then they’re ready to be adapted on a local level.

 

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Bali is undergoing a water emergency. According to a report by IDEP, the quality of water is declining due to poor waste management systems, erosion as well as tourism. While river waste cleanups are a way to address the problem in the community, what can be done to rectify this issue? 

All of us can start today. It’s not rocket science to understand how badly we’ve damaged the rivers and watersheds, you can just look at any bridges in Bali and see the impact. It’s all about our own consumption. Unfortunately, we’re in a state where infrastructure does not meet the current output that Bali is producing, every year Bali produces 1.5 million tons of trash and 48% of that isn’t properly managed. So it ends up either in an illegal landfill by a river or illegally burned. Out of the 52% that gets managed properly, only a fraction of that will actually be recycled. So if you start to look at the ginormous mess that we’re currently in, I think it’s partly due to infrastructure and lack of awareness of the general public.

Unfortunately, as you mentioned, we spend every single day on the rivers and seeing people dumping all sorts of sewage waste as much as feces from the pig farms, to so many different things – it’s alarming. I think that rivers are a reflection of our actions on land and they’re like the perfect symbol for people to start diving into their environmental journey. Although you can do a coastal cleanup, a beach cleanup, but being in the river, you get to understand the connection of everything – of how everything is connected. So by joining some more cleanups, or by understanding the entire flow, I feel like it’s the opportunity to get you to open up that first level of awareness.

“Rivers are a reflection of our actions on land.”

↳ Gary Bencheghib

What is interesting about Sungai Watch is how it focuses on data to support the work that’s being done. How important is data in this environmental battle?

The data report, the first one that we released publicly, is online and available but we’ve worked on several other reports that we’ve been openly sharing to some of the corporations that are producing these plastics in the first place. If you look at Indonesia as a whole, we don’t yet have the right data, facts, to prove how plastics are detrimental to our environment. Essentially, as much as a photo can do justice in proving how bad the situation is, nobody can ignore the facts. 

Every single barrier that we’ve placed is an opportunity to look at one river, zoom out to the geographic and demographics of the village and understand what are the main retail points there, such as local markets or convenience stores, to see what plastics can be sold and then really understand the leakage of waste management. So for us, Sungai Watch above anything else has really been a data activator where we analyse every single piece of trash coming to our three stations by brand, colour, type and condition, in order to better understand how long a landfill has been around for, what types of waste are local to Bali, as much as having conversations with the other side. There are multinational companies or big Indonesian FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies that can start speaking about better waste management but also better sustainable packaging which is the core fundamental of everything. 

We got a scanning mechanism to scan every single piece of sachets that has a barcode, and we’ve scanned over 300,000 of them. Now we have a manual database, fully made in-house, of 37,000 products that are different. Out of those products, we’ve been able to pinpoint them to 10,000 individual brands. So right now, the next report is really going to be all about showcasing what some of these brands could really do to not just run PR/greenwashing stunts, but really start to be a part of the solution. I think with Indonesia having a very ambitious goal of reducing plastic leakage to the ocean by 70% by 2025 and setting quota for some of these plastic producers, in some ways these data can hold them accountable and get them to find real solutions and not just have a cool logo that show the world how good they are.

Do you find any differences in waste during these cleanups in different locations?

From the first data report, which includes 8 cleanups that we did, since then it’s been 10 months of being on the river every single day and almost 100 barriers. We’ll be celebrating our 100 barrier this Friday. It’s a lot of data. We’re bringing about 2 tons of trash in our facilities every single day and most of the trash that we find are Indonesian brands, there’s the occasional Russian shampoo or even French fancy perfume, but most of it is big Indonesian FMCG companies, from Wings, Santos Jaya Abadi, Siantar Top, and Indofood.

With Bali being on a slow down for international tourism, the waste that flows down the river is the fresh waste that people recently threw out either at the back of their kitchens or their villages, and we’re seeing a huge amount of masks that pop up – which is quite interesting. I was just on a river earlier doing a cleanup and we found 2 dead pigs on 1 barrier, so we could find anything that you could imagine, from mattresses, helmets, chairs, broken part of a car, to headsets, so it’s just not the plastics that we use every single day, but it’s everything. 

Teh Pucuk Harum is one of the plastic bottles that we find the most of, repeatedly throughout the 10 months. But per desa, sometimes we see that people like Frestea more than they like Teh Pucuk Harum, which is so weird. So looking at that set of data, we can look at consumer trends, standpoints which is what brands are ultimately looking for, so it’s interesting to look at all that. We’re not going to give that information but we’re going to try and hold them definitely accountable. This is a lifetime’s journey and I think in Indonesia, some of these brands are still not putting sustainability at the forefront of their values. CSR is still a very small department. Sometimes they only have 1 guy working in the CSR department, or none at all. With enough data, with enough community being able to hold these brands accountable, ideally they can understand the pressure that is on them to change. 

 

 

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Sungai Watch is a movement that relies on the community’s engagement to start taking action. What are the main areas of concern that usually hinders this progress?

So right now we have a full time team of 50 and every time we do big cleanups, we’ll hire 25-60 people from the local community and we always have amazing volunteers that come out for a day or a couple hours for a cleanup. 

With Bali being on a standstill with international tourists not arriving, it’s been an amazing time to reflect on what we want to leave behind for Bali and how we can sort of recreate a sustainable island – we were building way too much. So for the Balinese themselves, most of our team our 60% Balinese and they’re our true heroes – they’re from high Mangkus to people who were selling sarongs on the beach, a lot of drivers who had lost their jobs in hotels, securities and hotel staff that now are fully invested [in the movement]. For us, watching them lead the fight every day has been what keeps me going.

Do you have any plans of extending your reach outside Bali?

This week is a big one for us because we’re celebrating the cleanup of 100 rivers, which is very exciting. Now we’re looking at the master plan of 1000 rivers across Indonesia. I think it’s been an amazing milestone to show that these barriers can be scalable. Up until now, we’ve been using a lot of virgin materials to make our barriers from iron and PVC pipes. For the past couple of months we’ve tested some recycled barriers. So after the first 100 barriers, we’re planning to make the next 1000 out of recycled materials, that will be truly inspiring for people to see the true value that trash has as a commodity. 

Sungai Watch relies heavily on activities on ground, with the looming threat of COVID-19, how do you navigate your programs in the midst of the pandemic?

Unfortunately the plastic pollution will never end in the midst of the pandemic. We started off in the early days of Covid, I was sorting at my parent’s house. We had one barrier and I would go out everyday from 2 AM to 6 AM to check on it. But I think we can all do something, starting from looking at ourselves in the mirror and asking the bigger question of what is it that we consume and where does it end up. Looking at ourselves, and ultimately having a reflection of ourselves, looking at the waste that we create. Right now, even being in quarantine or on lockdown, we’ll be able to reimagine what impact we want to have on the planet and this is the perfect time to do so. We have so much more time to do proper research. It’s basically like cleaning your room, but you’d be cleaning your plastics – opening your fridge, seeing what you can replace. Although we’re very limited with the amount of people we can get on the river, the river experience is potentially the best experience to get you to think differently about waste, we can all start today.

“It’s been an amazing time to reflect on what we want to leave behind for Bali and how we can sort of recreate a sustainable island – we were building way too much.

 ​​Gary Bencheghib

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