Dynamic network uses a simple phone app to transform Indonesia’s rivers


‘The key is to connect your heart with nature,’ says Dr Agus Maryono, a water resource management expert and creator of the successful and influential Indonesian River School Movement.

‘It is one thing to study, but it is another to go down to the river and experience it for yourself. This is when true change happens.’

Taking university students out of the classroom and away from their books is one of the keys to success for the scheme which uses Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) to restore polluted river systems. The other is using the mobile application WhatsApp to build a network of sharing advice and information between many diverse groups.

The River School Movement is part of the Indonesian River Restoration movement, started in 2015 after a study on the effect of development taking place near rivers in Indonesia.

Administrator and Coordinator Dr Maryono said: “The idea came about because a new holistic approach to protecting and restoring rivers was needed. There was a huge amount of construction, but very little attention paid to the people and ecology of the river. What was needed was to bring all stakeholders and everybody related to the river from the people living on its banks to local government together.”

He set about reversing the trend of building at the rivers’ edge, diverting river flows and cutting canals, and the negligent disposal of waste, all of which increased pollution along the river.

‘”It was our duty to develop the river and to do that we had to go directly to the river communities to discuss with them,” said Dr Maryono. “Some agreed with what we proposed, and some didn’t. Those who did - small dynamic groups who loved the river and had powerful memories of how beautiful and green it used to be - became the first pioneers. We found that every river has this kind of people and they began to build a river community group.”

He began to connect them and their community by WhatsApp increasing the share of conservation information about activities to restore the ecological balance of the river. To add to this important folk memory and mobile technology Dr Maryono engaged students at his own Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

“Every element was connected by phone, the community, the university and the government, national and local NGOs. People were excited and enthusiastic, and the mobile group and river communities grew quickly from 10 to 200 with up to 100 postings a day. New groups developed 50kms from Yogyakarta and then 500kms away sharing photos and activities through using this simple non-paper tool,” he said.   

He soon realised though that the clean-up movement needed to be made more sustainable with people learning why it is so important to preserve rivers.

“I knew we needed to develop some kind of school. This was a very exotic idea at the time and people were curious,” he said.

He explains that by ‘school’ he means any place where people learn from a space cleared under a bridge to a concrete building.

As the schools became established people asked what the curriculum would be, but he told them they were responsible for what they wanted to learn. The size and nature of the school would depend on the level of enthusiasm and ideas of the people involved.

To help provide a model of what could be studied a meeting was arranged bringing together members of the community with representatives from the Disaster Reduction Agency.

Now there are more than 20 river schools and 58 River Restoration Movement networks involving more than 150 communities across Indonesia with the First Secretariat at the University of Gadjah Mada. Each school is based on the principles of democracy, adaptability and free access. In addition, two River School Modules, 10 books and more than 30 videos have been developed along with lecture materials. Now some river communities have started to develop their own books telling the story of their own river.

Activities of the River School include discussions and lectures as well as direct field action on river restoration. Capacity is being built in community empowerment and organization, collaboration and network development, disaster management, water resource utilization and conservation, public health, entrepreneurship, tourism and more.

The movement has been recognized by the Global Prize of the ‘ESD Okayama Award’ from Okayama City, Japan in 2016, which annually rewards three outstanding ESD practices in local communities around the world. To ensure its sustainability, the movement involves young people in the development of learning materials, particularly digital and its more than 10 websites have recorded thousands of views.

The effect of the movement has been such that some rivers have completely reversed their trend from brown and polluted water to green oases with an increase in fauna and the preservation of the food chain. At the same time as improving the physical environment, the project increases social cohesion, networking, women’s participation and economic empowerment.

“People have changed their behaviour from dumping waste to clearing river water and banks. They understand also that properly restored green rivers are assets which if managed wisely can create economic activities such as eco-tourism and fisheries, as well as having positive health implications,” he said.  

Dr Maryono gives one striking example of the benefits of restoration from Village Pandes village in the Klaten district in central Java which suffers a high level of stunting in children in an area with more than adequate nutrition.

“The local government and communities were engaged, and it was found that dirty river water was causing diarrhoea and stomach upsets which led to the stunting. The clean-up of the river and other sanitation measures has resulted in a significant drop in the percentage of stunting,” he said. Now the village has one restored river and the district has six rivers, which are clean, and being used for recreation and village tourism.

There is, however, still a great deal of work to be done with 75 % of Indonesia’s rivers still classed as dirty. The plan for the period 2017 to 2020 is to have at least two river schools in every province in Indonesia and from 2020 to 2025 to ensure 80 per cent of all districts have river schools.

Now Dr Maryono has his sights set on an even bigger target.

“We want to spread the message to our neighbours in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and further afield to India and Sri Lanka and Africa. And we look forward to collaboration with UNESCO and the SEAMEO Secretariat in Bangkok, Thailand. It is not enough to be responsible in Indonesia. We love rivers wherever they are. We must feel responsible for the whole world,” he said.