Urban fish tales


August 6, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Ismet (left) and Endang enjoy a laugh along the banks of the languid Krukut River. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A little girl sits on the bank of the Krukut River, fishing derby numbers visible. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Where there is water, men will fish. But I never imagined I'd see lines cast smack dab in the middle of Jakarta, a megapolitan city of at least 8.5 million people.

But there they were, men sitting on the concrete banks of the small, languidly flowing Krukut River that runs through the heart of Petojo, a slum neighborhood in Central Jakarta. A few months ago this water was less safe to fish from: a 23-year-old latrine sat on its banks, less than 50 feet from where a handful of local men are fishing.

In October 2007, Mercy Corps opened a new kind of latrine here that's not only helped improve the water quality of the river, but also significantly contributed to a cleaner environment — as well as better awareness of health and hygiene — for this entire area.

The solid waste generated by this latrine — which local households pay 5,000 Indonesian rupiah (50 cents U.S.) per month to use — is separated from liquid waste and placed into a biogas digestor. The resulting biogas is used to power a nearby communal stove, and can also be used to generate electricity for lighting.

The liquid waste is diverted into another system called a baffled reactor. The water ends up in a small adjacent wetland, where water plants like lilies remove potentially harmful bacteria.

These are innovations that have made life in this poor neighborhood somewhat easier and much healthier for local families. And it's helped catfish thrive again in the Krukut River.

I sat down for a while and talked with a couple fishermen — Endang and Ismet, both 58 years old — about fishing here. They told me that mostly black catfish live in the river, which make for some good eating. I asked them what they're using as bait; Endang opened a can of pink, wriggling worms. I told them that, when I went fishing with my grandpa, we used chicken innards to lure catfish. There was suddenly a bunch of nodding and enthusiastic chatter.

"Oh yes," Ismet said. "Guts are good."

This neighborhood has even established an occasional fishing derby. Participants pay 10,000 rupiah (U.S. $1) as an entry fee, then stand on painted numbers that line the bank and cast their lines. Whoever catches the biggest fish takes home the grand prize, which has sometimes been as high as 300,000 rupiah (U.S. $30).

So, even amidst the haze and din of Southeast Asia's biggest city, there is also the peace and simple virtue of sitting along a sleepy river with fishing pole, a can of worms and your thoughts.