Kedonganan Beach, Jimbaran Bay, Bali, 
Indonesia, 2014. Photo: Childs
Kedonganan Beach, Jimbaran Bay, Bali, Indonesia, 2014. Photo: Childs

Project Clean Uluwatu Is Changing The Waste Rhetoric In Bali

Talking positive transformation with PCU’s project manager, Curtis Lowe

It's too crowded. There's trash everywhere. It's approaching critical mass.

When it comes to Bali, these phrases have become the popular rhetoric in recent years, with too many people assuming there's nothing that can be done to slow the idyllic island's impending demise. In fact, many folks will tell you Bali has already reached a point of no return.

And that just isn't true.

Yes, Bali has its problems, with so many people and such little infrastructure, but the issues are fixable. It's not becoming some irreversible wasteland — not on the watch of people like Curtis Lowe and organizations like Project Clean Uluwatu. Curtis, PCU's project manager, is originally from Florida and started off in Bali like so many others. "I saw how much of a mess the Uluwatu cave had become, and I just wanted to volunteer for a little while," Curtis told us. "But I was so naive: I thought we could fix the whole thing in a couple of months, and then I could high-five everyone and go home [Laughs]."

Six years later, Curtis is still in Bali, but he's finally ready to pass the torch to local management, which has been PCU's goal since the beginning. We caught up with Curtis to chat about the progress PCU has made since its inception, and how he hopes it can serve as an inspiration for positive change throughout the rest of Bali.

Project Clean Uluwatu got its start in 2011, to rectify the (at the time) out of control waste situation in the Uluwatu cave. Talk about the progress that's been made since.

Back in 2011 we had two main goals: to stop the sewage from flowing into the cave and to provide a way for all of the trash to leave Uluwatu. To do that, we installed a central sewage tank that all of the warungs (restaurants) are connected to, and also a big rubbish collection bin, which is emptied every week. That said, it ended up taking a lot longer and being a much bigger job than we originally thought. It took about three years to do those two basic things, and then the last few years we've been extending the system as the area continues to grow. We also built a wastewater garden to treat the water that's already been treated, because just running the treated water wasn't enough. To do that, we built these really big gardens that absorb the wastewater, and keep it from becoming a mosquito breeding ground or going into the riverbeds.

We spoke to Rizal [Tanjung] recently. He brought up Nikko Right and the Kempinski Hotel and cited it as an example of shameful practice by the government and big money developers. Is PCU aiming to help fight other causes around Bali, like that one?

We'd love to, but first, we want to handle what's in front of us. But in the case of the Kempinski Hotel, we did get involved. We helped create a petition, and Mega Semadhi—who’s always been a big help to PCU—went and had meetings with the head of Greenpeace and we came up with a strategy together. What ended up crippling it is that the guys behind the project were such big, scary dudes with so much money that they intimidated the local surfers in that village and kept them from standing up in protest. And without those key guys, we couldn't go any further. Which really sucked. In the future, there needs to be more information about these projects way further in advance, and we need to help the local surfers feel more empowered.

The popular rhetoric as it relates to Bali is that it's too late to help and it's headed for an environmental demise. But that doesn't have to be the case. What will it take for that perception to change?

People need to learn more about what's really happening. The water in Southern California is probably dirtier than the water here. It's a lot of hyperbole to say that it's a disaster. It's not nuclear waste. Before PCU got started, people looked at the cave and said it was impossible to fix. But that wasn't true: all we needed was a sewage tank, some pipes, and some common sense [Laughs]. And most of Bali's problems can be looked at in a similar way.

What's next for PCU?

Transitioning to local management has always been the dream, and we're in the middle of that right now. And we're hoping to set up an internship program with Patagonia. In the past, people have come over and gotten university credit for interning with PCU, and now is a good time to start that back up. Tim Russo [from Uluwatu Surf Villas] has been a huge help with everything. Without him, this never would have happened. We just did a water testing yesterday here at Uluwatu for the first time in a couple of years. When the results come in, we'll compare them and present them to the public, and show the amount of progress that's been made.

There's no slowing down surf tourism in Bali. But what can a surf tourist do to help?

The best thing someone can do when they come to Bali is ask every restaurant and hotel they visit where their water and trash goes. It's not the most comfortable question, but by asking, you let them know you care, and it puts pressure on them to put pressure on their local government to step up and do something about it, because they rely on the tourists' dollars. Just talking about the issue takes it from being an out-of-sight, out-of-mind taboo subject, and makes people have to think. And, of course, if you want to devote some time and energy to PCU, contact us and we can set something up.

To learn more about how you can help, visit their website here.

[Featured Image: Photo by Childs]