Dihydrogen monoxide is a colorless, odorless compound involved in many commercial and industrial processes. It’s a flame retardant. It’s an integral part of nuclear power plants. Prolonged exposure can result in severe tissue damage and inhalation can be fatal yet there is no warning label. It is the main component of acid rain and carries disease through populations. Large amounts can cause electrical failures, erosion and even structural damage to buildings.
For those of you who haven’t caught on, dihydrogen monoxide is chemistry speak for water. Pure H20 is mostly safe, contaminate or mismanage it and the real problems begin. Entrepreneur and environmentalist Steve Palmer, 60, of Sydney, AUS, knows how to manage water. He first came to Uluwatu to surf in 1974 and he’s witnessed all the development in Bali since. “The first time I surfed Ulu’s the only ones who saw me surf were the cows on the cliff,” he said. “There was nothing at all- nobody.” Today Palmer is an advisor for Little Tree, a green lifestyle store on Sunset Road, and partner of Surfer Girl International based out of Kuta since 1998. He was a pivotal figure in creating septic tanks at both locations. He’s even installed one for himself and his neighbors on the cliff at Padang Padang Beach. As Lowe gained momentum with PCU, Palmer stepped in to lend his expertise and technical advice on waste water gardens, bio systems, and plumbing. I sat down with him at his magnificent home overlooking the Bukit to learn more about his efforts to clean a place he’s seen change so much since the early 70s. “If you wanna process shit and all the kitchen waste and all that stuff you pretty well gotta have two stages. If it’s going big volume, you need anaerobic and aerobic digestion.” Steve leads me out to his lush garden like a gear head about to show off a restored Cadillac. He runs the hose for a minute and fills a glass with treated waste water, a presentation I get the feeling he’s done before. He holds the glass up in the sun and begs “look, smell, don’t drink it but understand that you can. There’s no E. coli or any of that nonsense.” There is mild discoloring and a subtle odor. I’m told these are trademarks of superb plant food. He empties the glass into the garden, explaining how the water came from three homes, washed dishes, clothes, hair and teeth. It carried away solid waste. When properly treated it’s completely innocuous and, in fact, useful. A two stage waste water system is the best way to handle liquid waste and a huge improvement over leech fields and river dumping. Stage one is anaerobic digestion, where waste is quarantined away from oxygen in a large tank and given time to break down and release things like methane. Stage two is aerobic digestion, which introduces air to the mess with a blower system. This is where the odor disappears, an attractive benefit for businesses who want their customers to have an appetite, or anyone who doesn’t like the smell of shit.
The outflow is fed into waste water gardens, gravel beds where carefully selected plants take hold and feed on the leftover debris and nutrients. Whatever doesn’t evaporate through the plant leaves is collected and used to flush toilets, looping itself back into the system. Even the untreated drainages in Bali have plants sprouting from their banks. With a little guidance and cleaner septic standards, every outflow would push nutrients and safe water through the streets and into the ocean, feeding small gardens along the way. The collective growth of a few rows of plants in every developed neighborhood could in theory replace the rice fields that once existed there. A productive, urban, agricultural landscape would drink all of our waste water, clean the air we breathe and provide harvestable goods. According to Tim Russo, owner of Drifter Surf Shop and Chairman of PCU, the new Uluwatu septic system handled 1.5 million liters of sewage in the first eight months, or 6,000 liters/day. Less than one year ago, all that would have flown into the surf. I asked Palmer why he thought PCU had such a tough time unifying the community under one sanitary banner. “[Waste] is not a priority, making money is. Waste only becomes a priority when making money is clearly, actually hindered. A lot of the ownership and management are way less aware of environmental issues. They’re running on twentieth century management practices.” Twentieth century- that’s not too far behind right? But the point Palmer is getting at is that 22nd century thinking is what’s needed. Current standards are inefficient, and if we don’t think so, you can bet our grandchildren will. Bali doesn’t need a space program, but better cultivation of the Bukit would be good start. “I’m sure permaculture could turn this place around,” Palmer said. “They’re doing it in the middle of the desert in Jordan and such places, growing crops.” Developers bulldozed a cow pasture in Canggu last month. Next door is already one mismanaged project, a four-story monolith of vacant concrete. Rice fields everywhere are disappearing to make room for hotels and the freshwater reserves cannot keep up with the tourism industry’s demand. Every dry season the waterline falls, and every wet season it returns a little lower, and a little murkier. The agricultural landscape is changing. “I won’t necessarily blame the Balinese, but I will blame the level of expertise in the government for allowing this- apart from the fact that they’re also corrupt,” Palmer said. “They’re capability of performing their function relative to the size of the issue
is lacking. They don’t have the expertise, the experience, the knowledge bank. They don’t have the infrastructure to be able to do such things.” Palmer added that corruption is a problem in every country, a faceless changeling slipping through loopholes between the private sector and government legislatures. He said it’s important for non-profits and activists to mimic the same ballet, to bend with the rules and do good where they can. “The chances of change are greater in Indonesia,” Palmer said. “The West is so sophisticated with its corruption it will probably never change. In the East here it’s still unprofessional corruption.” The progress at Uluwatu preceded a major shift in Indonesian leadership. Newly elected President Joko Widodo earned his reputation cleaning up corruption in Jakarta. His administration has local government rethinking their operations. “Revolusi Mental- a mental revolution- is the platform of Jokowi’s presidency,” Palmer said. “This doesn’t mean changing the color of the pen you write, it means completely starting off with a whole new book. This is what’s needed and it’s needed here. Bali’s still stuck in the old guard, the Suharto process of how to run a country.” There is hope in the future, but development isn’t slowing down. There are several proposals in review for the development of Benoa Bay, roughly 500 hectares of wetland area surrounding the new Bali Mandara Toll Road. Investors are planning to move forward by 2016, and plans include manmade terra forms like the famous Palm Islands in Dubai, luxury hotels and entertainment centers. A university campus and a hospital are also on the table. South Bali is already extremely developed, and Palmer fears this project will result in further overcrowding. “I went to Denpasar the other night to go see a friend in the hospital and it was a horrible experience,” Palmer said. “What’s going on here is they’re just living on top of each other and it’s become a totally unhealthy place to live, so the hospitals are full. And then they’re gonna employ 15,000 more people to work on these islands that they’re reclaiming? It’s just gonna completely clog up this end.” Palmer added that if the development moves sideways no party will assume responsibility and no one will be held accountable. The environment will shoulder the burden of cut corners, while head officials will sell off what they can and jump ship before the worst of it even comes to light. “It all gets back to this revolusi mental, it really is the crux of it. It’s hard to get something moving here and revolusi mental has already taken hold. Use it. Grab hold of it. It’s already got a charge. Because for God’s sake what is it gonna be if it’s not a mental revolution? If we don’t change how we think, nothing else is gonna change.” // Palmer’s words bounced around in my head as I left his house and headed for Uluwatu. The tide was out and I wanted to get some waves before sundown. On my way into the cave, I saw Lowe’s gravel gardens sprouting heliconia and ginger plants. I looked to my left where the notorious pit used to fester, and there in the center stood an Asian couple in full wedding regalia, shooting engagement card photos in the soft light of the late afternoon. Indonesia can change very fast, it’s up to us to decide how.