Sustaining livelihoods in an Indonesian dryland environment

Living in a remote area has many disadvantages, especially in dryland regions where poor access to water means households are not growing food at home, drinking insufficient water, and paying less attention to personal and public hygiene.

The time from seed to harvest averages 2 weeks. October 2017

During her Griffith University PhD research fieldwork in rural West Timor, Dr Yenny Tjoe experienced this challenge first-hand and therefore went on to initiate a community project in the remote hamlet of Timor Tengah Selatan Regency, known as the Hauhena Water Project. Since May 2017, the project has successfully supplied water directly to 30 households.

In October 2017, Yenny and the project team conducted a follow-up visit and found that within 5 months, the households had begun to grow vegetables in their own yards. Prior to this project, growing vegetables in the front and back yard was extremely rare given the quantity of water required, with households in rural West Timor relying mainly on the 3-month of rainy season to grow their food.

Locally grown sawi (known as bok choy in Australia) from seed. October 2017

Since the project completion, the 30 participating households have harvested vegetables at least three times. Part of the harvests were used for domestic consumption, while the remainder was sold at local farmers’ markets.

Each harvest can earn about Rp100,000 to Rp200,000 (AU$10—AU$20). This is considered a substantial income for rural people as most of them are subsistence farmers and for them to generate cash income, they need to migrate to the city or overseas to work as low-skill labourers.

“Now we have our local-grown vegetables, we no longer buy from others. Even the non-locals [people from other villages] come to look for our vegetables.”

(Mama Jeki, a female farmer in Hauhena)

Increasing pressure from monetisation of rural life

At this early stage, the water usage is still below desired level. Households use water mainly for growing food, while their awareness of drinking water and public hygiene has not shown meaningful improvement (is still very low).

A sample receipt as a proof of payment for a water bill, collected monthly.

During the follow up visit, the project team conducted an informal group discussion with the local people to talk about their expectation and concern regarding the water usage. According to them, they have not focused on the habits of drinking water and personal hygiene because they were worried that their water usage will add to their increasing cost of living.

This is an indication that there is pressure arisen from monetisation, where rural subsistence households in West Timor are now facing similar pressures as their urban counterpart. Their need for liquid assets has been increasing because they now need cash to pay for children’s educational fees, mobile phone credit, electricity bill, and other needs. Many of them also need to save money for bride dowries.

The need for cash is especially evidenced by the increasing number of West Timorese who have migrated out of their village to work in the cities or overseas as domestic maids and as construction or palm plantation workers. Consequently, many of these migrants were reported as being abused by the recruiting agency and employers. Also, according to the local NGO in Kupang (Institute of Resource Governance and Social Change) and the National Board for Placement and Protection of Migrant Workers), over the past five years, West Timor is among the top 5 regions in Indonesia in terms of illegal migrants and human trafficking.

This project has provided better water access for this small community and has motivated the households to generate more incomes in their village through sustainable food production. During this follow-up visit, the project team also provided basic guidance to the 30 participating households about strategy to manage their water usage and how to effectively utilise the project for both economic goal and human health. However, it will take longer for the local people to improve their habit of drinking water and public hygiene.

Article by Dr Yenny Tjoe, PhD, Department of International Business and Asian Studies and Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.