In January, I received six preliminary water samples from Rote, Indonesia, that were ran in the Vengosh Geochemistry Lab for an inorganic analysis. All the samples showed noticeable levels of nitrate concentrations, especially in the local village well on the southern part of the island. My hypothesis is that the nitrates are coming from human waste – due to open defecation, pit latrines and highly permeable teraine – and this waste is getting into the groundwater. This kind of contamination poses both a public and environmental health concern. Concentrations of 10 mg/L or greater of nitrate, which is close to what we saw, can lead to cyanotic heart disease and methemoglobinemia – also known as blue baby syndrome – in infants.
Excess nitrate runoff on the environmental side poses a major threat to aquatic fauna. Rote is surrounded by coral reefs and the local culture is sustained largely by fish protein. Nitrate can lead to algae blooms and coral bleaching, which can lead to fish kills and a degraded ecosystem. This is becoming more and more prevalent in Rote and many other underdeveloped islands in Indonesia due to the lack of proper waste management. In East Indonesia, this summer I will be able to run water samples for both biological and inorganic contaminates. For biological samples, I will be able to look for total coliform and fecal bacteria, which would indicate whether human effluent is getting into the water source. In addition, I’ll collect samples to take back with me for the Vengosh Lab at Duke, where they can be run for inorganic contaminants like heavy metals, salts and nitrate.
All these components will allow my partners and I to piece together this multifaceted issue and show wastewater is in fact getting into the drinking water, as well as the ocean via run-off. To address this issue, we are wanting to implement a compostable toilet program in addition to WaSH (water, sanitation and hygiene) initiatives in the 10 schools we already work with on the southern part of the island. The outputs would be sound scientific data that can be used to educate the locals on the public and environmental health concerns from poor waste management. In turn, this would help get community support for the compostable toilets undertaking. The objective of this is to help protect the locals from self-contamination and conserve the precious coral reef ecosystems by minimizing and hopefully eliminating nitrate run-off.
I have brought with me 45 inorganic sample kits, plus a DelAqua field incubation kit that will be used to run tests for biological contaminates. I, by no means, am traveling light this time around, but in the name of science it is okay to carry a bit more, I reckon.