Peaceful Water to Cool Conflict


October 2, 2002

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    Villagers in Air Salobar, Indonesia construct a new water system. The project, funded by Mercy Corps, has expanded access to clean, safe water and improved communal relations in the area. Photo: Mercy Corps Indonesia Photo:

Rasyid Kaimudin, a 36-year-old with three children, is one of those remaining in the village of Air Salobar in Maluku Province, Indonesia. During the inter-communal conflict on Maluku's Ambon Island, he and several neighbors remained in the village after about 500 households were forced to flee to safer areas. Since the conflict on Ambon began in January 1999, thousands of people have died, others have lost their homes or their jobs, and the island has been largely segregated along religious lines. Many people now live in camps without room partitions and with insufficient food supplies, potable water, and basic tools.

Those who remained in the village of Air Salobar have had to deal with devastated vital public facilities and sanitation. In addition, the land transportation links to town have also been cut off, and only recently has there been a little freedom of movement between Christian and Muslim villages. The only means of transportation in or out of the village has been expensive speedboats that allow residents to bypass dangerous roads. Many of people forced from Air Salobar have been reluctant to return.

Rasyid Kaimudin along with several other villagers heard about Mercy Corps' emergency program working through local NGOs to help people affected by conflict in Maluku. He also had a good relationship with one of the local NGOs, Lembaga Karya Anak Bangsa (LKAB), which had staff originally from this village. Eventually he came to the Mercy Corps office and consulted with the staff, which agreed to send an assessment team to his village.

The assessment found that the biggest problem in Air Salobar was water. There was an old well at the bottom of this mountainous village, but most of the community lived up the hill making it difficult for them to take the water from the well and bring it to their homes. The community relied heavily on rainfall, which was insufficient during the dry season.

Rasyid Kaimudin, an expert in water system construction having worked for the local water company before the conflict, consulted with the staff of LKAB, which had been successful with their other Mercy Corps emergency projects: a water and sanitation project and a basic shelter project for returnees on Seram Island. The NGO and the community began formulating a proposal for constructing a water system, and later submitted it to Mercy Corps.

The proposal met Mercy Corps' application criteria and was funded. The NGO and Rasyid, as the local organizer and later a member of the NGO, worked shoulder to shoulder with the community on this water system. Rasyid and Air Salobar's men, women, and children fully participated in this project from its inception: assessment, designing the proposal with the NGO, implementing the project, and then also maintaining the system after installation. The construction took less than two months to complete.

Prior to the conflict, the people of Air Salobar had difficulties with water and relied on rain downpours, or else they bought their water. The new system supplies water even to those who live at the outer edge of the village. Now, to make the system sustainable, every family pays the water committee every month for maintaining the system. But the amount they have to pay is far less than they previously had to pay for water from the water company or from commercial water tanks.

Besides reliably providing water, the project in Air Salobar has had a positive influence in the area in other ways. For example, the community on its own initiative set up a small credit union run by the water committee to give out small loans to help those in the village who lost their jobs during the conflict. And members of the community who had fled the area later heard the news about the water project from their former neighbors and also from the local media, which reported on the inauguration ceremony held by LKAB. The message attracted some displaced residents to return to Air Salobar, whose population is now up to 200 households.

Meanwhile, LKAB and Rasyid Kaimudin are actively promoting peaceful change with the neighboring Christian villages too. Air Salobar and its neighbors may be divided by conflict, but they also need each other. For example, the bordering communities badly need materials for house reconstruction, so Rasyid and several jobless youths began gathering sea sand and selling it to them. Air Salobar has sometimes been closed to people wanting to pass through, but people in Rasyid's program needed buyers beyond their own village. Now there are no more barricades on the road when you pass through this village. Interaction seems to intensify day by day, and both sides have begun to talk.

When Mercy Corps visits this village now, we see Rasyid actively working on the water system. He also teaches the community how to maintain it and requires their accountability. From the outset, all elements of the village have been involved in implementing this project, so now they see it as their own property. Through such joint efforts, they have a great sense of belonging and commitment to each other.