INDONESIA, October 14, 2021 — Over a plate of casava and refreshing ice syrup, 90-year-old farmer Mbah (Grandpa) Lapan shared historical changes of land vegetation in his home village that may have contributed to recurring floods in the city of Semarang. His vivid details of the story, gleaned from his sharp mind, provided a much-needed clue to the missing piece of the puzzle of flood mitigation efforts.

Equally important to his wisdom is the trust and mutual respect formed during the information gathering process. When a UNDP team met with Mbah Lapan in June, at the height of Indonesia's dry season, they decided to immerse themselves in the community by accompanying them on their daily farming activities. In the case of Mbah Lapan, he began to open more after the team followed him to the field.

Mbah Lapan was one of dozens of people who recently met with the team assigned by UNDP’s Accelerator Lab and the Rujak Center for Urban Studies, who were attempting to unearth hidden information on flood mitigation through ‘immersive method.’  With support from the Directorate for Water and Irrigation Development at National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas), the teams were assigned to flood-affected cities in Indonesia such as Banjarmasin, Semarang, Cirebon, and Malaka. Recurring floods in these cities in recent years have impacted communities, causing massive financial losses. 

The primary goal is to develop an impactful flood mitigation policy that incorporates the needs and input from affected communities, rather than focusing on flood infrastructure development.

The mechanics of this immersive method includes participatory tools and a solutions mapping techniques developed in collaboration with the Institute of Technology of Bandung. All of these knowledge frameworks were created to ensure that the team understood the perception and needs of the targeted communities. These tools are part of a well-oiled machine that made the communities felt listened and heard.

All of the information gathered from the seven cities was then shared during what social scientists refer to as sense-making exercises. Instead of looking at facts and information in fragments, this process entails a thorough analysis to obtain a complete picture of the situation.

Reading through the communities’ testimonies, not only I was impressed with some of the solutions practiced by the communities, but I was also impressed by their critical insights and input. Communities in Banjarmasin, for example, have questioned the lack of sustainability of the city’s water tunnel, saying some of the tunnels were not properly designed to connect to a nearby river. Local beliefs and superstitions also play a critical role in flood mitigation. For example, communities in Malaka village believe that some of the recurring floods were caused by powerful shamans who diverted water from their home villages.

The communities’ relatively candid assesment was also quite refreshing. One member of a river community, for example, did not mince words when expressing his displeasure at the lack of mitigating efforts by the local authority which essentially cancelled out their preventive collective efforts.

“We worked together to raise the bridge so it did not obstruct the flow of river water, but we where is the government’s promise to dredge the river?,” said the member of the community.

I should emphasise that none of these revelations and nuanced reactions could have been captured if we had not been armed with the holistic techniques of information gathering, namely the immersion method. In other words, if we had not engaged in active listening with emphaty and humility, the communities might have been discouraged by our apparent bias and chosen to remain silent. As a resut, the immersion method was successful in providing a safe and transparent space for communities to express their wisdom.

The following stage of our process was even more eye-opening, both for us and the communities. To bring the immersion method full circle, the flood-afffected communities  presented their findings virtually before Bappenas last June in a rich interaction peppered with lively discusisions. It was the first time that the communities had direct interaction with government policy makers, and of their concerns and insights were taken seriously.

And among those will be a preventive strategy built upon testimonies from flood-affected communities like Mbah Lapan whom our team met during that hot afternoon. As he worked the field under the schorching sun, Mbah Lapan shared his frustations about the changing elevation of his vegetation land. It’s no longer on a slope as it once was, particularly since the development of a nearby industrial estate in the mid 1980s.

His story will serve as the foundation for evidence-based policy briefs on flood mitigation that will place a greater emphasis on communities’ needs and perspectives.


Author : Communication team and Accelerator Lab Indonesia team.

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