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Gotong royong: Unity and resilience in Makassar’s informal settlements amid a pandemic

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December 2020

Gotong royong is highly respected in Indonesian society, especially by those who live in informal settlements where close kinship relationships are crucial for overcoming obstacles. The spirit of gotong royong is the inner voice that says, “whatever the challenge, as long as it is done together, it will feel lighter and possible.”

In a small community in the district of Batua in Makassar, Indonesia, evidence of resilience is everywhere.


Residents of informal settlements in the area come together every wet season to fund and construct bamboo rafts and walkways to cope with the floods. This spirit of mutual cooperation, called “gotong royong”, reflects unity and contributes to attaining community resilience.

The Revitalising Informal Settlements and their Environments (RISE) program, which receives grant financing from ADB’s Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF) and from The Wellcome Trust through Monash University and its partners, has been harnessing gotong royong to improve human and environmental health through improved water and wastewater management. The program also aims to enhance resiliency of urban poor communities from the impacts of climate change.   

At the onset of community lockdowns due to the pandemic, communities participating in the RISE program were not spared from the impact of COVID-19. Jobs were lost and routines were disrupted. The entry of goods into the island was limited to only essential supplies. Thus, shopkeepers, waitresses in restaurants, cleaners, and street vendors, as well as workers in factories and warehouses abruptly lost their sources of income.


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  • Nur Intan Putri
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  • Matthew French

Flooding in the neighbourhood of Batua, in Makassar, Indonesia

The RISE communities, however, decided to turn this challenge into an opportunity.

Housewives began selling cookies and re-selling food ingredients such as cashews and brown sugar. They used WhatsApp, a mobile application, to promote their goods. The spirit of gotong royong manifests in how they support each other’s small businesses to stimulate the local economy within their communities.

Government support in the form of food and daily needs packages were channelled to informal settlements. To abate the spread of infection, hand washing stations have been installed in public places such as the POSYANDU (local Maternal and Child Health Centers), and PUSKESMAS (community health clinics), the Kelurahan (Sub-district) offices, as well as in mosques.


Cookies advertised on WhatsApp by RISE residents

Transitioning to the new normal, mosques are reopening and social networks are emerging as important pathways in the delivery of health messaging. Ibu Merry, who works at the local POSYANDU,  makes regular announcements at the local mosque about the importance of wearing facemasks, handwashing, and social distancing.

Ibu Merry, who lives in Untia settlement, shared that parents now need to juggle home schooling for their children and finding sources of income. While the burden has increased for most families, it has affected some families more than others. Ibu Merry observed that in these difficult times, as a community, they continue to watch out for each other and support those families who are most in need.

The continuing challenge in informal settlements, long before the impacts of COVID-19 were felt, is to find mechanisms for residents to advocate for quality communal infrastructure. When sanitation is restricted to household-scale infrastructure (toilets and ‘leaky’ septic tanks, for example) it has limited impact on reducing fecal contamination and improving health and sanitation.

Figure 3 - Ibu Merry.jpeg

Ibu Merry from Untia neighborhood handing out information brochures

Beyond the reach of trunk infrastructure for water supply, with limited formal drainage networks, and exposed to the impacts of flooding, residents in informal settlements are exposed to multiple risks.

Neighborhood-scale nature-based solutions such as constructed wetlands and biofilters, combined with more traditional ‘grey’ infrastructure and ‘smart’ systems, provide an inclusive and water-sensitive approach to improving urban services in the RISE communities that can address multiple risks.


Using a water-sensitive approach, RISE constructed wetlands, bio-filtration gardens, stormwater harvesting, local sanitation systems, private toilets and an access road in the Batua neighborhood in Makassar, Indonesia

RISE is anchored by a co-design principle that enables each community to ensure infrastructure solutions are fit-for-purpose.

RISE will provide research-based evidence that a localised, water sensitive approach to revitalising informal settlements can deliver sustainable, cost-effective health and environmental improvements. This includes assessing the impact of the RISE intervention on pathogen burden, markers of intestinal inflammation and function, and drug-resistance markers detected in faeces. The health and wellbeing of residents will continue to be monitored, including throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The concept of resilience as a systems approach should not be limited to interventions at the national level, but should also reach communities and individuals, especially those that are most vulnerable. It is in this context that UCCRTF is financing the RISE program in Makassar to improve the lives of the urban poor, and to harness the power of existing local social support networks that are critical to long term community resilience.


Residents of Tallo neighborhood in Makassar, Indonesia co-designing community upgrades for water, sanitation and drainage using nature-based solutions

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