Indonesia: Water springs eternal in Sukagalih village

BOGOR, Indonesia – In Sukagalih village, up in the mountains of Sukabumi, water is never scarce.

Water gushes from pipes half buried in the soil, flowing through irrigation canals to quench the thirst of rice paddies. In villager's homes, water springs eternal from pipes in their bathrooms, falling into concrete basins, overflowing onto the tiles and then out the drain. 

In the villager's home I called my own for one night, my urbanite mind worries about the unstoppable flow of water. There is no off-switch here. The water just flows, and flows. 

This abundant water supply comes not from any commercial water service provider, but from the best water provider only nature can supply: Mount Halimun-Salak National Park.

The 13-hectare village is at the edge of the park, home to one of Southeast Asia's last remaining tropical rain forests.

The park acts as a watershed, collecting water from the rain and gathering them into streams and rivers. At the same time, forests evaporate vast amounts of water from their foliage forming rain clouds, completing the hydrological cycle vital to water security.

The park provides water for the entire Sukabumi district, composed of more than 300 villages. 

Water is only one way forests play a large but invisible role in the lives of people.

As more and more people move into cities, the gifts of the forest are being forgotten. Urbanites are likely to see forests as faraway places that look pretty in pictures but are strictly the territory of mountaineers or tourists. Forests are "there" while we are here. 

Nature's bounty

But the forest's gifts are more far-reaching than we think. For instance, the clouds that form above forests don't always make rainfall there. They often drift away to bring rain to places where water is in short supply.  

Some 15 operations to induce rain through cloud seeding have already been conducted by the government in the northern region to keep crop fields and dams from drying up.

If the Philippines had been able to preserve its lush forests, would we still have to resort to this?  

Because of decades of logging and the expansion of agricultural lands, Philippine forests now take up only 24% of the country's total land area, the second lowest amount of forest cover in Southeast Asia after Singapore.

At the moment when forests are in decline, droughts are leveling up. 

Scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified heat waves as an impact of climate change the planet is bound to experience in the next few years. Are forests and people ready? (READ: Climate change creating new poor in PH)

Financial incentive

Water from Mount Halimun-Salak brings not only water security for communities but also ensures the park stays in good condition. 

The water tax that Sukabumi district and water companies pay goes to a fund used by the national park for "community development" projects, said forest scientist Moira Moeliono who specializes in community management of forest resources. 

"The park cannot receive money from an outsider directly so they made an agreement with the consortium of villages to manage this fund for the benefit of the local people," she said.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT. Sukagalih village leaders present through a skit how they coordinate with the national park management in forest conservation and protection

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT.

Sukagalih village leaders present through a skit how they coordinate with the national park management in forest conservation and protection

Part of the fund is used to buy seedlings which the villagers plant in aid of efforts to reforest the park's degraded areas. The fund also pays for the labor of the villagers who plant the trees, providing an alternative source of income. 

Animal husbandry is another source of income made possible by the fund.  

Part of the money was used to buy 6 goats for Sukagalih. Now, the village has 400 goats with each household owning around 20. Breeding and selling these goats now accounts for at least half of a household's monthly income so when harvests are lean, they have a financial buffer.

Thus, in more ways than one, the tropical rainforest keeps the village alive.

The benefit-sharing gives locals a financial incentive to protect the forest. These villagers are often the first to report illegal logging, mining and other disturbances, according to a forest ranger I spoke with. Some volunteer to pick up trash found in the park's trails. 

It makes sense. Any environmental damage in the forest affects the water. Communities and water companies won't pay for dirty water. If there is no payment, villagers would not get the financial support they now enjoy.  

VILLAGE LIFE. A boy crouches by his family's fishpond, another alternative source of livelihood for the farming village

VILLAGE LIFE.

A boy crouches by his family's fishpond, another alternative source of livelihood for the farming village

The cycle of give and take between the forest and the people is as important as the hydrological cycle. Without these two cycles going hand in hand, the park would not survive the urban and agricultural expansion that are among the leading drivers of deforestation. 

And deforestation continues. In the last 20 years, Southeast Asia has lost 13% of its forests – around 332,000 square kilometers of forest land, an area roughly the size of Vietnam.

Every month in the region, an area of forest 3 times the size of Jakarta is cut down, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Back in Sukagalih village, the endless rush and tumble of water flowing from countless pipes makes for soothing background music. In more ways than one, Mt Halimun-Salak's water has threaded its way into the fabric of the village's daily life.

While attempting to bathe by candle light in the dead of night, I give up looking for a way to turn the flow of water off. As the spring-cool water wells up in my cupped palms, I take the water gladly, humbly accepting the unstoppable force of nature.

It's proof that what man gives to nature, nature gives back a hundredfold. – Rappler.com 

This article was written while the author participated in a 7-day fellowship on forestry journalism given by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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