Indonesia’s key exports and the importance of water stewardship

This post was originally published as part of the Australian Water Partnership’s Kini Initiative. To see original post, click here.

The Alliance for Water Stewardship is involved in a number of demonstration projects across Indonesia. Here is why the success of these projects in modelling good water stewardship is important to the country.

Basja Jantowski’s interview on Water Stewardship in Indonesia and the work that she has been involved in with the Alliance for Water Stewardship is highly relevant as Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world. Furthermore, as Basja mentions, Indonesia’s geographical position makes it a key exporter to the rest of the region, with agribusiness forming one of three major sectors in Indonesia.

Indonesia is ranked number 16 in the world by GDP and is reliant on a number of water-intensive exports such as:

With exports representing 19% of GDP and agribusiness responsible for employing 45% of the 127 million person strong Indonesian labour force, the agricultural sector plays an important role in addressing the SDGs. In fact, the current government’s National Medium-Term Development Plan 2015-2019 ties in to the SDGs with its emphasis on social, economic, and environmental development, as well as on the development of law and governance structures.

The importance of water stewardship in Indonesia 

Basja mentions the need for greater awareness on the linkages between risks such as deforestation and urbanisation, and water stewardship. Issues of water stewardship in the context of agribusiness are just as important. An example of an initiative that aims to bridge the current knowledge gap that exists around critical water risks to business is the CEO Water Mandate – an aspirational commitment to the management of water in areas of business relating to:

  • Direct operations;

  • Supply chain and watershed management;

  • Collective action;

  • Public policy;

  • Community engagement, and

  • Transparency.

How water intensive is palm oil cultivation and production?

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, and together with Malaysia, supplies over 86% of the world’s palm products. Although highly productive and an important source of income for many poor rural communities in the region, meeting the increase in global demand means that the industry is a main contributor to the deforestation of intact tropical rainforests and loss of biodiversity in one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth. Palm oil cultivation also results in the decline of water quality and the release of greenhouse gases from wide-scale deforestation and draining of mature peatlands.

Photo of roadways surrounded by palm plantation, by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash.

There is a clear need to better understand the impact that palm and other monoculture plantations have on the quality of local freshwater sources and resulting downstream stresses. Water footprint studies have shown that water consumption by palm plantations depends on location of the plantation and growing period of the oil palm, with seasonal rainfall potentially supplying most of the water requirements for oil palm growth and irrigation making up any shortfall. The methodology for calculating water requirements over a crop cycle requires further development, with the 2014 Muhammad-Muaz study recommending that a “water stress index” local to the growing area also be incorporated into any calculation.

What does this mean for water stewardship?

Basja highlighted that we need to work on addressing existing knowledge gaps relating to the role of water in creating sustainable and prosperous communities. Key to achieving this is building trust and close relationships between various stakeholders. In addition to direct engagement with businesses, governments and the community, there also still exists a knowledge gap relating to water consumption patterns of one of Indonesia’s key export commodities – oil palm products. In any numerical modelling exercise, appropriate input data and assumptions are crucial to providing accurate and meaningful results on which policy decisions can be based. Therefore water footprint modelling should be conducted carefully when discussing large scale water consumptive activities in any country or context.


Water and Religion – reflections on Eid

Today marks the end of the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan, Eid-al-fitri, Aidilfitri, Idul Fitri, or other variations, depending on where you’re from. It is the year 1439 AH, marking the number of years since 622 AD – when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers journeyed from Mecca to Media.

This led me to reflect on the special role that water plays in many religious rituals – not just in the Islamic faith, but in all of the major religions and in many other faiths as well. A study of 230 countries conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2012 found that more than 8 in 10 people around the world identify with a religious group – six years ago this amounted to 5.8 billion people worldwide.

Photo by Mattia Serrani on Unsplash

The water practices associated with these religions almost always requires clean or pure water. In Islam, water is used in a number of rituals, including washing of the physical body before each of the 5 daily prayers – a symbol of cleansing of the spiritual self. In the absence of clean water, clean sand may be used.

In Shinto – the indigenous religion of Japan, deities are believed to inhabit natural objects such as trees, rocks, springs, and mountains. Places for cleansing oneself are part of shinto shrines and water bodies are believed to have purifying properties.

Hindus believe in the sacredness of water bodies and rivers. Physical cleanliness is closely linked to spiritual well being and morning cleansing with water is part of daily religious life. The Ganges River is held to be one of the most sacred rivers in the Hindu faith, and it is believed that the waters of the Ganges possess healing powers, and purifies those who bathe in its waters.

Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

It makes me think of access to clean water and the impact that this lack of access has on peoples’ abilities to practice their religious beliefs in the manner that they would want. At present, 844 million people worldwide don’t have access to clean water close to home, and 31% of schools don’t have access to clean water. This doesn’t even discuss the darker realities of illnesses and deaths caused by lack of access to clean water. The holy Ganges is severely polluted, and yet millions still bathe in it in the same way that worshipers of generations past did.

Whether or not you believe in a deity, and whether or not you belong to a faith group, maybe today is also a day to think about the role that water plays in day-to-day ritual and well-being. A day to realise the value and importance of this thing we take for granted because it’s there just about whenever we need it. A day to appreciate that those who don’t have that access depend on us all – not just on governments – to ensure that there’s enough to go around both for today’s people and for future generations.


“Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were joined together as one united piece, then We parted them? And We have made from water every living thing.” – Quran 21:30


“If we were to walk in the woods and a spring appeared just when we became thirsty, we would call it a miracle. And if on a second walk, if we became thirsty at just that point again, and again the spring appeared, we would remark on the
coincidence. But if that spring were there always, we would take it for granted and cease to notice it. Yet is that not more miraculous still?”
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700–1760)


“And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes” – Bible, Ezekiel 47:9

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

A couple of charities and sites you can support to help with this cause:


Systems thinking, respecting the Yarra River, and the future of water stewardship at the Water Innovation Lab Australia 2018.

OK, there’s a lot to cover here because I just got back from a transformative week with 60 other people in the Yarra Valley – home of the Yarra River, which has been the lifeblood of Melbourne and surrounds since before Europeans arrived. For tens of thousands of years it was called the Birrarung, and the cultural and spiritual heartland of the Wurundjeri people. It is to their elders – past, present, and future – that I pay my respects.

So what is the Water Innovation Lab?

The Waterlution Water Innovation Lab unites “young” (in quotation marks because I don’t think of myself as young!) leaders from across the globe in one place to think holistically about emerging global trends and how established patterns of thinking can be broken. The end goal is to develop solutions that integrate the values and approaches of different disciplines and segments of society.

Over a one week period, we visited numerous sites around Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, speaking to Melbourne Water, their 3 metro water retailers, Melbourne council, and a range of inspirational resource guests from industry partners such as Clearwater, Resilient Melbourne, WSAA, ICE WaRM, and the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, just to name a few. We then withdrew to a camp site in the Yarra Junction to reflect, share knowledge, and innovate, using systems thinking tools that the Waterlution facilitators shared with us.

Melbourne’s Western Treatment Plant

Here’s a little thing I made after we visited the Western Treatment Plant – unlike any conventional wastewater treatment plant I’ve ever seen, the WTP is picturesque, tranquil, and VAST! If we had the luxury of land space we could turn all our treatment plants into places of natural beauty.

Western treatment plant

Find out more about Melbourne’s Sewage Treatment.

What is Systems Thinking?

I admit, before last week, Systems Thinking was something I’d heard of but knew almost nothing about. It is a way of tackling problems from different angles, exploring the relationships between the different “why” variables, as well as identifying influences, dynamics, motivations, processes and patterns.

The Systems Thinker site highlights that many of the solutions or interventions we design (and as engineers and planners, solving problems and delivering solutions is what we do), often address symptoms of a problem and not the underlying cause. This is more likely to result in the solution having unintended consequences.

This was one of the graphics used to highlight the differences between linear and systems thinking:

Tools of a system thinker

So collectively we identified a range of complex problems that we were passionate about and wanted to spend the next few days working on (I’ve written briefly about complex or “wicked” problems here). We defined complexity based on how much agreement and how much certainty currently surrounds the issue.

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My team chose to explore issues relating to the water-energy-food nexus – a topic I’m interested in, as you may already know.

Then using a systems thinking approach, we broke off into teams and what came out was, in a nutshell, this:

Waste transfer market

I’ll go through the systems thinking behind this, and explain the concept further in another post. Although we got a lot of positive feedback from the industry partners and resource guests, a more deserving team ended up winning the seed funding and mentorship prizes.

Some insights from WILAustralia 2018:

Waterlution’s founder, Karen Kun, posits that water could be the catalyst for decreasing global inequality. Until now I had always thought of water as being the cause of global inequality and system stress – we use the terms “water wars“, “water conflict“, and “water scarcity” to link water to emerging social and political trends. Waterlution, for all the language cliches used on the website, genuinely lives and breathes their guiding metaphor of building connections through water. Through their lens, I realise that water can be the catalyst, if we each act as instruments of positive change.

Some of my key insights from the week were:

1. We all have some kind of connection to water in our day-to-day lives

Each person’s narrative may be different but without even realising it, we have more in common with strangers than we thought. What is your water story?

2. It’s hard to properly engage with aboriginal and vulnerable communities if we don’t build genuine and lasting relationships.

“Engagement” at a project level relies on trust, dialogue on an equal footing, and shared visions – these things don’t happen overnight. Build authentic relationships within the communities you serve.

3. Systems thinking

In order to solve the increasingly complex problems we face (climate change, resource security, inequality, poverty, etc), we need to break down traditional ways of thinking and approaching problems. Successful system thinkers are also able to work collaboratively across disciplines, sectors and other divides.

4. Water companies can play a significant role in creating liveable cities if they are given the opportunity to do so.

When council, water authorities, community, business and industry come together to identify patterns and the underlying structures surrounding some of our complex problems, they can design interventions that are more than just band-aid solutions. Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy is a good example of an initiative that benefits the whole community.

5. People with diametrically opposing ideas, and different values can still come together to create clever solutions.

If we’re willing to challenge our own biases and boundaries we stand a far better chance of working together successfully than if we view the world only through the lenses that we are accustomed to.

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On our last full day, we shared one insight each with one another, and there are so many more to capture that I don’t think I’ve done this section justice.

What comes after this week of water-based systems thinking?

My group hopes to pitch our idea to others in the water industry to see whether or not the concept has enough substance to be something we can pursue. We will need to explore the barriers and implementation a bit further, and seek out the support that we have identified that we will need to build a basic prototype.

And who were the innovative thinkers on my own team?

and myself.

I see a future where people working in the water sector no longer see solutions in terms of things we can build or repair. We will think about communities. We will think about blue and green infrastructure. We will think about our first nation peoples and vulnerable groups in society. We will be forward thinkers with values rooted in our past and present. We will be compassionate and collaborative leaders.

For me, I see a lot of exciting posts in the pipeline about some of the amazing work that the people I met last week are involved in – from the International Indigenous Youth Council, to some of the other interesting innovations and ideas that members of this group are involved in. As always, watch this space!

Want to see what the future water stewards will look like?

Here are some of them – what makes them remarkable is that they care not only about our water, our future and our communities, they also care about each other and work life balance!

WILAustralia2018 - nexusjournalist

A question that resonated in my mind the Monday after I got home was one that someone put to the group one evening: What will YOU do differently come Monday? Memories fade, and returning to our everyday lives will bring us back to old habits and lifestyles; but hopefully our “Monday moments” will last a long while to come.

More on Water Innovation Lab 2018

To read more about the experiences of the inaugural Water Innovation Lab Australia cohort, check out the following blogs:

  • Emma Milburn – Marketing Manager, Iota Services at South East Water

Who were our amazing facilitators?

I can’t end this without a shout-out to Seanna Davidson, Dona Geagea, and Katia Bratieres, who made this space possible and who looked after all of us for the week; as well as the other fabulous resource guests – you can have a peek at the list here.

Why business leaders should sign up to the CEO Water Mandate

What is the CEO water mandate?

The CEO Water Mandate calls on business leaders globally to take action on water stewardship.

The endorsing companies recognize that much more can be done to reduce water risks to businesses, seize water-related opportunities, and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. Doing so places a value on shared water resources; sustainability of water usage is interwoven into business strategy. The CEO Water Mandate works to “address challenges related to water scarcity, water quality, water governance, and access to water and sanitation”.

What benefit does signing up to the CEO water mandate bring to businesses?

The private sector recognizes that there is a need to understand the risks posed by climate change, and plan for future uncertainties. The Business Alliance for Water and Climate calls for collaboration between companies to :

  • Share and analyse water-related risks in order to develop response strategies.
  • Measure and report water use data
  • Reduce impacts on water supplies in operations and throughout the value chain.

In addition to collaborating with others to better understand the water-related risks to your business (a benefit that is in itself a reason to join such a movement), the CEO water mandate also allows you to:

  • Strengthen your brand by reaffirming your commitment to sustainable business practices
  • Optimize your supply chain and operations, by identifying where these areas may be exposed to water-related risks
  • Build relationships with key partners who share your values
  • Access the experience and expertise of other like-minded organisations
  • Increase your ability to affect public policy, as a thought leader in your field, and as part of a partnership of leading organisations
  • Engage with your customers and community through working groups, collective action, and meaningful corporate and social responsibility strategies.

Many businesses have risen to the challenge of reviewing and improving their water usage to create a more sustainable relationship with local waterways. The Business for Water platform has been working with corporations to do just this for the last 20 years, using verifiable metrics.

Business water risks infographic:

Water-risk infographic

Who has signed up to it so far?

The current list of endorsing companies is expected to grow as more and more businesses come to understand the importance of water stewardship to their future success.

The Innovation diffusion model tells us that behavioral change broadly follows 5 phases – the innovators are the first to embrace new concepts or products, followed by the early adopters, early majority, late majority, then the laggards.

The names of the innovators and early adopters who signed up in the early days of the CEO Water Mandate are hardly a surprise – many are known for progressive workplace policies, work done to create sustainable supply chains, or authentic and high profile corporate and social responsibility activities.

In more recent times, we’ve seen personal products company Colgate Palmolive, Japanese food products maker Kikkoman, the Ford motor company, and educational research institutions such as the International Water Centre also endorse the mandate.

They are diverse in the products and services they offer, yet the one thing these organisations have in common is that they are leaders in their respective industries – Because water stewardship is for everyone.

Don’t be a laggard. Read this article to see if your business may be at risk, and consider signing up to the CEO Water Mandate if your organisation has not already done so. Take action and follow the business alliance for water and climate, or join a working group to develop tools and resources that will help your business tackle water-related challenges and needs.

Finally the words of the highly successful CEO of Pernod Ricard, Alexandre Ricard states: We are a business, first of all. In today’s world, every single business has a duty of giving back to society.