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Australian and Indonesian young water professionals are working together to solve challenges

Unitywater Project Engineer Sandrika Ryan visited Indonesia last year to learn more about the country’s water sector as part of the Water Utility Improvement Program. Here, she shares her experiences.

I didn’t know what to expect from my first international delegation visit. My mind wondered about what I would learn, be able to bring back home and what positive impact I might have. 

An international trip for work usually isn’t paired with so many emotions, but that was the reality of the Water Utility Improvement Program (WUIP). It was about the partnership, the relationships, the building of trust, sincere care and interest in improving opportunities for growth for our international neighbours.

The journey to Jakarta to meet the enthusiastic water professionals from PDAM Surabaya, plus more of the international delegation for the IWWEF (Indonesia Water and Wastewater Convention), was extremely exciting. 

From the very first moments at the IWWEF opening ceremony, there was an instant recognition that the Indonesian water sector comprises dedicated people who care deeply for their people, protecting their water and securing their future.

Reflecting on experience at IWWEF, I can’t help but think about how we focus so much of our energy on reforming, innovating and improving the way we do things for ourselves in our known environment. It is not until we receive a little outside perspective that we can see exactly what we have and to be grateful for. 

IWWEF brought together a full room of very interested and engaged Indonesian delegates from across the nation, from various government departments and participants within the WUIP. Australian representatives from Yarra Valley Water, South Gippsland Water and me, representing Unitywater, provided a technical talk on three key areas of the partnership program: water safety planning, asset management and non-revenue water.

Sandrika Ryan (third from left) with members of the Indonesian water sector.

The immediate positive impact of our work between each utility pair was evident. Particularly when the session turned into an open floor discussion, the Australian utilities were able to provide solutions to real problems happening this very minute in these Indonesian communities.

The Indonesian minister of public works and housing provided us with a clear picture of the current state of the country’s water sector: in 2019, only 60% of Indonesian PDAMs (utilities) were considered ‘healthy’. They have a target to increase this to 100% by 2024.

PERPAMSI, the Indonesian water sector association, also shared with us a simple yet powerful message. The goals of the partnership, from an Indonesian perspective, are friendship, solidarity, open-mindedness and, above all, enjoying the journey.

Young water professionals (YWP)

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the WUIP, and the broader involvement of the Australian Water Association (AWA) and the Australian Water Partnership (AWP), is working with the future generation of south-east-Asian professionals. 

Sandrika Ryan presenting at the Indonesia Water and Wastewater Convention.

To take the partnership program to the next level, the AWA facilitated a YWP seminar co-hosted by GHD environmental engineer Shane Woods and myself. Shane and I were so impressed by the collaboration between Indonesian delegates, the depth of their conversations and the insights they were able to share with us. 

But it wasn’t just about us and them as separate groups on separate journeys. We were surprised by how many of the complex challenges sounded familiar to us. From finding a champion for YWPs to seeking mentoring opportunities, forming a strong and reliable network, finding the opportunity for our ideas to be heard and obtaining support from our seniors, it all sounded really familiar.

The seminar was a great sounding board for what is now turning into an international YWP network, where the challenges can be specifically explored, noting that no one challenge is experienced equally across regions. A respect and understanding that culture and other contexts largely influence the challenges or difficulties experienced by Indonesian YWPs was crucial to move forward with tailored solutions. 

Allocation of resources and the establishment of Australian-Indonesian mentoring and other opportunities for young professionals is now on the horizon, all because of the stories shared during IWWEF.

Gender, equality and social inclusion

Indonesia is committed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation for all. The challenge for us as partner water businesses lies in facilitating growth in a direction they need most. 

For Indonesia, a clear example is enhancing the opportunities to profile female careers in STEM, at the local level first, with the common goal of normalising female activity in the workplace equivalent to their male counterparts without undermining cultural values and customs. For PDAM Surabaya this involves normalising women working in the field and female department leads being provided equal opportunities. 

A Gender, Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) workshop was facilitated with the AWA, AWP and Indonesian partner water utilities. This was the first opportunity for the Australian delegates to hear about the real challenges facing women in particular. 

Talking with other young water professionals.

Some of the challenges were local, some were very wide spread. There were many stories of qualified female engineers working in administration roles and not being able to pursue engineering work, stories of senior technical female engineers not being able to participate in the same critical activities as men, even when they held a lead role in the project. It was also shared that there are very few opportunities for support and networks. While there are very complex cultural, societal and political details that we have just started to understand, these conversations will shape into action. 

In fact, an extremely rewarding moment for the WUIP, which will ultimately impact many other PDAMs across Indonesia, is PDAM Surabaya’s recent recognition of GESI in action. During PDAM Surabaya’s visit to Unitywater in November 2019, the team witnessed female field crew members undertaking pipe repairs. 

This might be unremarkable to the Unitywater team, but it was a profound observation for the Surabaya team. Unitywater later received report of a presentation being made to senior leadership back in Surabaya of this equal opportunity, and the learning featured in PERPAMSI’s monthly magazine.

“We saw female employees there practicing pipe repairs that men usually do”, a PDAM Surabaya team member said. 

“It was a program of general equality and social inclusion, from the Australian government. Unitywater recruits female employees specifically for repair work. They have the same percentage of men and women as leaders in the company.” 

With many more months to go with the WUIP, I am looking forward to learning more about the Surabaya culture and their operating context to help solve technical problems. But, most of all, I look forward to the inspiration and joy that comes from learning together, growing in friendship and tackling challenges that will hopefully leave a lasting mark. 

To learn more about the Water Utility Improvement Program and to get involved, click here.