It is wet season in Bali, Indonesia, a popular tourist destination for Australian, Russian, German, Chinese and Japanese visitors.
As the rain pounds down on banana leaves and rice fields, the rivers fill up and irrigation systems overflow. With it, the water masses bring trash in bulk: anything from food wrappers and plastic bags to bottles and other domestic waste.
To tackle the issue of marine pollution, several organisations got together in Nusa Dua – a popular tourist destination – and other locations across Bali to stage the largest beach clean-up the island has seen.
Around 12,000 volunteers collected 40 tons of garbage at 55 locations, according to the One Island, One Voice campaign page.
While the beach clean-up was a hugely successful awareness campaign and a great promotion which highlights the efforts done around the island, it is only a drop in the ocean of global marine pollution.
Plastic pollution in Indonesia
In recent years, Bali has seen growing environmental problems such as pollution and freshwater scarcity. Popular tourist destination Kuta beach is regularly covered in waste. Most of this is plastic that washes ashore during the rainy season.
On top of that, Indonesia is the world’s second-biggest marine polluter after China, discarding 3.22 million metric tons of waste annually. This accounts for 10% of the world’s marine pollution.
The effects marine pollution has on ecosystems and humans are beginning to be well documented. Marine scientists have found harmful consequences of marine pollution to sea life, ecosystems and humans.
Plastic can kill ocean mammals, turtles and other species that consume it. It can also poison food and water resources, as harmful chemicals leach out of the plastic.
It poses threats to human health as well. Plastics leach cancerous toxins. After being consumed by marine species, they enter the food chain, eventually ending up in fish we eat.
Marine plastic pollution is a global problem and Indonesia’s beaches present pressing examples to study the socio-economic effects this has on coastal communities.
Most vulnerable to marine pollution left out of global discussions
Last month, The Economist held the fourth Oceans Summit in Bali.
The summit was attended by state leaders such as Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, representatives of major global economic organisations such as Citigroup managing director Michael Eckhart, and celebrity and entrepreneur Adrian Grenier.
Speakers and panels discussed a number of topics, including the “blue economy” and how companies and governments can participate in this marine-based sustainable industry.
During the summit, the Indonesian government announced it will pledge US$1 billion to curb ocean waste by 70% by 2025. It’s an ambitious objective, which shows dedication and commitment to a plastic-free future.
But not all voices are heard in this global debate. Many Bali-based environmental organisations engaged in education programs were not represented at the summit. Those economically most vulnerable to pollution – such as beach vendors, fishermen and others employed in the marine tourism trade – appear to be left out of the conversation.
Marine pollution and tourism
The Indonesian government plans to boost tourism and increase national visitors from 9.7 million in 2015 to 20 million by 2020. Such increases in visitor numbers and population will raise consumption and waste production, further pressuring the island’s infrastructure and ecosystems.
With tourism as the island’s largest economic sector, many Balinese people depend on foreign visitors to earn an income. Some tourism operators are concerned that if the plastic problem increases it will damage this industry. They fear tourists will stop coming to Bali if it is too polluted.
Marine communities may also suffer negative socio-economic consequences, as fishermen can lose their livelihood and tourism operators lose their customers.
While some tourism operators understand that clean beaches are key in attracting international tourists, the expected growth is likely to further stress Bali’s environment.
What is being done?
Efforts by activists, community groups and NGOs to clean beaches play a key role in protecting Bali’s environment. But they are only a temporary fix and don’t tackle the causes of this global problem.
Such groups are leading the fight against over-development and pollution through protests, clean-up events and educational programs.
Campaigners from Bali-based environmental youth group “Bye Bye Plastic Bags” advocate for an island-wide ban on plastic bags. They also spoke at the Ocean Summit.
And while they convinced Bali’s governor to commit to make the island plastic-bag-free by 2018, continued development of legislation, regulation and industry guidelines is needed to save Indonesia’s waterways from drowning in waste.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article claims that substantial groundwater resources in Bali were predicted to run dry by 2020. It should be 60% of Bali’s water catchment are drying up. It has been corrected.