On the western edge of the tropical island of Borneo, renowned for its rainforests and orangutans, lies the city of Pontianak, West Kalimantan. As the economic heart of the province, Pontianak has a profound connection to the Kapuas River—the longest river in Indonesia which sustains the community amid the challenges presented by climate change.
Here, Robby Maulana Saputra works for the water quality testing unit of the area’s public water utility.
Despite his efforts, water supplied by the utility, and by many in Indonesia, is not safe to drink. Drawn from the Kapuas River and its tributaries, the water has the hue of strong tea due to tannins leaching into the river from the surrounding peatlands. Additionally, the Kapuas River faces increasing risks from climate and land use change, leading to more frequent flooding and higher turbidity.
Robby spent his childhood in a remote village situated upstream of the Kapuas River, a two-hour boat ride from Pontianak. Like many families in Indonesia, his childhood home lacked safe drinking water facilities.
“When I was a child, our only water sources were either from the river or an uncovered pond and for drinking water,” Robby says. “For drinking water, we boiled rainwater.”
Limited access to water was considered normal. “I never thought about the health effects,” Robby explains.
At the age of 17 years, Robby pursued a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Tanjungpura University in Pontianak City. His studies opened his eyes to the health risks associated with using contaminated water and motivated him to pursue a career in the water sector.
“I realized that the water I consumed when I was a child could harm health because there was no water treatment other than boiling,” he says. “Since then, I have been interested in the water delivery process to communities”.
Now, Robby translates his determination to improve access to safe water into practical work as a chemist for the Pontianak water utility, locally known as Perusahaan Daerah Air Minum Pontianak, or PDAM Pontianak.
In the first two years of his nearly ten-year tenure at PDAM Pontianak working for water treatment plants, Robby learned the techniques and challenges of delivering safe water. “At that time, I realized that to achieve good quality water through water treatment is a tough job because each location has its unique situation,” he said. Now Robby serves as the director of the company’s laboratory where he works to ensure that water delivered to customers meets the government safety standards.
Pontianak, like many parts of Indonesia, confronts challenges in delivering clean water exacerbated by climate change. The vulnerability of its Kapuas River source to climate impacts and land changes is a key issue. Dry seasons bring water scarcity due to sea intrusion as shown in the shade areas of the West Kalimantan map, while wet seasons introduce peatland water complexities. These challenges, amplified by extreme weather events, mirror wider trends across Indonesia. Robby's expertise in water safety planning is pivotal in navigating Pontianak's changing water landscape, particularly as climate predictions forecast further disruptions to water sources.
In 2022, Robby joined a water safety planning training of trainers facilitated by USAID Indonesia Urban Resilience, Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (USAID IUWASH Tangguh) project.Through IUWASH Tangguh, USAID works to improve the performance of water utilities across 38 municipalities in Indonesia to increase access to water and sanitation services for the urban poor. This includes supporting professionals like Robby to improve their skills and enhance the capacity of their utilities. During the IUWASH Tangguh training, Robby learned to assess and develop plans to mitigate risks to water safety and security, such as poor water quality and climate stressors.
As a certified trainer himself Robby trains his colleagues to develop and implement Pontianak’s water utility’s water safety plan.
Ardiansyah, the executive director of Pontianak water utility hopes that Robby can also share his expertise with 13 utilities in West Kalimantan and across Indonesia. To that end, Robby has already begun collaborating with the neighboring water utility.
Robby and his team's hard work has started to change water safety in Pontianak. Their improved planning has enhanced risk management and successfully revised the water safety plan, ensuring an improved resilience to floods and resultant water turbidity.
Furthermore, the integration of climate change considerations into the water safety plan has opened up new opportunities for innovation. Meanwhile, USAID IUWASH Tangguh is completing a climate change vulnerability assessment (CCVA), which will further strengthen the utility’s ability to understand climate risk and identify critical intervention points.
Over the coming years, USAID IUWASH Tangguh will continue to support utility staff like Robby across 38 cities and districts throughout Indonesia. By 2027, USAID aims to help bring safely managed drinking water to an additional 1.5 million Indonesians.
This blog was produced by the DAI team.