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Villagers Digging Deeper Into Ground in Search for Clean Water

Sendang Wideng, one of many water springs in Sekaran that have been decimated to muddy, shallow water pools surrounded by concrete walls. Photo by Noni Arnee.

September 07, 2018

By: Noni Arnee

Semarang, CENTRAL JAVA. Around two decades ago, villagers of Sekaran of Gunungpati subdistrict, southern part of Semarang, Central Java, rely on small water springs, known locally as sendang, to meet their daily consumption.

But following the development of the vast 5,399 hectares of a university campus, villagers were forced to seek other water sources. 

Suharto, one of the neighborhood units head said, in the 90s, villagers used to get their water supply from at least eight sendang, including three largest springs, — Kali Bendo, Kuwok, and Wideng. However no clear data is available on the number of sendang and the neighborhoods they supply.

Local villagers recalled they had stopped using water from these sendang after trees surrounding these water springs were cut down. 

“[We used] to get water from Sendang Kali Bendo to bathe, wash, and cook. We would draw water up to two big containers, every morning and afternoon, for cooking. To bathe and wash, we just use water on the spot,” said Said, a Sekaran villager to Ekuatorial.com. 

He added water was flowing abundantly from the five-meter-deep Kali Bendo that smaller springs naturally formed surrounding it, called as Tuk Belik. There was enough water to supply the neighbouring villages. 

However, he noticed things changed since early 2000 when local villagers started  cutting down big trees in the surrounding areas of sendang, such as banyan tree, preh (red: a family of ficus), dan munggur (red: rain tree). 

“[Local] villagers cut down trees to get rid of mythical impressions. Around five years later, new buildings started to appear. By that time, sendang water debit has declined,” he said adding Kali Bendo had been reduced to at least two meters deep. 

Bendo, one of the 78 water springs in Gunungpati, Semarang, that currently needs immediate attention following its non-productivity and poor condition. Photo by Noni Arnee.

Kali Bendo, located only ten meters from Sekaran highway, is currently hidden behind houses, offices, and artesian wells, covered in bamboos with dirty, muddy water. 

Similar fate is faced by the Kuwok sendang, if not worse, currently located near household waste disposal. “[Kuwok] used to have lots of clean water. However, in 2005, strong winds uprooted banyan trees and as time passed, Kuwok slowly turned into muddle. It is only good for finding moss for fish baits now,” said Jumari, also a Sekaran villager. 

Nuryanto, another Sekaran villager, added that Wideng sendang, located about 200 meters from Kuwok, has long been abandoned, crammed between settlements, boarding houses, and moor. “At the end of it, we no longer use water from sendang  and left it behind. No one is taking care of [sendang] anymore,” he said adding that Wideng has turned into a fish pond covered with moss. 

Dewi Liesnoor Setyawati, a water expert of the Semarang State University, said poor maintenance and loss of vegetation are affecting quality of these water resources. In addition, land conversions for massive development, Setyawati said, also contributes to declining water sources. 

“Water from sendang is declining, drying up and [eventually] died, not maintained because local people no loner use them. Or, deliberately ‘being closed down’ and allowed to disappear for the sake of road development, housing or other land conversions,” Setyawati said. 


Search of New Water Resources 

After losing their natural water sources, Sekaran villagers started to find water by digging shallow wells, around 15-20 meters deep, in their backyards. 

“[We] finally made wells to get water. It is practical but expensive. But, that’s the only option because water from sendang is no longer sufficient,” said Said. 

But these wells were not a sustainable solution to their water supply shortage as water discharge were also declining especially during dry season. Villagers were forced to dig deeper, up to 35 meters below the ground, to find more water. 

“If we are lucky, water comes out, but some dug the ground and there’s no water. So, you will find that several houses have two wells,” he said. “If there’s no more water, you dig another one. In the past, it is so easy to get water but not anymore.” 

Moechammad Sholeh, an official of the Sekaran subdistrict, Gunungpati, said that water quality of these wells is very low. “Water from 20 meters deep is still murky and yellow in colour,” said Soleh.

But Sholeh added, these wells have been useful for people to access clean water and significantly increase underground water consumption. 

Sekaran and Semarang administration data in 2018 show, there are ten locations of commercialized underground water consumption, that sells water for Rp2,500 (US$0.17) per meter cubic with a total consumption of 20,000 cubic meter per day. 

“Most of the underground water wells are 70-100 meter deep. In average, two thousand cubic meters per day are distributed to residents,” said Sholeh, adding that  current data mostly shows the use of underground water by boarding houses and they have yet to conduct study for individual household use. 

“PDAM [Red: regional-owned company for water distribution] has yet to enter Sekaran. We cannot ban the use of underground water because there are no other alternatives. What can [we] do? It’s a necessity,” he said adding that there are at least 400 boarding houses built in Sekaran, since 2016.


Conservation Effort by Academics 

Head of Conservation Technical Development Unit of Semarang State University, Amin Retnoningsih, said that the university is partly responsible for the  environmental degradation of Gunungpati, a buffer zone of Semarang city. 

The campus area occupied 125,142 out of 490,178 hectares, a quarter of Sekaran village. However, Retnoningsih said that it will take years of steady effort to restore the area, including water resources and address water security issues in the future.

“Land conversions into settlements, of course, will reduce green areas which serve as water catchment,” he said. 

Five years after being declared as University of Conservation on 12 March 2010, the University revealed its conservation masterplan, from 2015 to 2025. 

The plan include a development of 5,000 cubic meter of retention basin, 2.2 hectare of plantation consisting of 100 types of trees, infiltration wells and biopores in campus areas. 

The 3400 square meter retention basin with 5 thousand cubic meter capacity was built in the Semarang State University compound. Photo by Noni Arnee.

“The retention basin will serve to contain rain and runoff water. Students are obliged to plant trees every year, either in campus area or Gunungpati areas. Planting as many as trees as possible is the easiest [conservation method] to do,” he said claiming that 110,000 trees have been planted in the past eight years. 

Sholeh explained that his office has been collaborating with the university, not just on  greening areas, the roads, and backyards. But, they also encourage villagers to build infiltration wells and biopores. 

“In the past, there were big trees in Sekaran but they were cut down for settlements and businesses. Sekaran is now nearly covered with settlements. So, now, we are encouraging people to plant trees. [New] building permits include requirement to built infiltration wells or biopores. This is a sealed contract. If we don’t do that, in the long run our water resources will be gone and we will be at a lost,” he said. 

Semarang Deputy Mayor, Hevearita Gunaryanti Rahayu, admitted that Gunungpati green areas have been turned into housing and business areas which has caused environmental degradation that leads to the rapid decline of water catchment areas and water crisis. 

“Water catchment areas were turned into new settlements. This is inevitable because Semarang is a metropolitan. [However] city administration will add more green areas and people are encouraged to plant more trees,” said Rahayu. 

Semarang State University conservation program has included at least planting 110 thousand trees around its campus. Photo by Noni Arnee.

Meanwhile, Retnoningsih said that planting trees to restore water catchment areas will not show instant result. Though it’s not significant, he added that the effort has shown progress in the last five years.

“All parties need to protect hydrology cycle and water sources so there will be more trees and springs as part of buffer zone for the ecosystem in the future,” he said. 

However, Retnoningsih pointed out that conservation efforts outside the Unnes campus areas have not been without challenges. 

“We educate people to plant. We provide seedlings. But, the problem is people often asked for fruit plants so they can make profit on the side. So, there is a mistmatch between supply and demand,” he said. 

Jumari, a Sekaran villager, said they prefer economical trees. “We don’t want trees just for shade. But, trees that bear fruit and can be harvested, such as guava, rambutan, and durian,” he said. 

Setyawati emphasiezed that it will take stakeholder participation to manage sustainable water sources. It needs more than just regulations, but public participation and local knowledge as part of an effective conservation strategy. 

“It is the same with preserving sendang and other resources, it is expected for local and village administrations, and villagers to play their role,” said Setyawati. EKUATORIAL



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