Planning for a Climate Crisis Helped a Small Indonesian Island Battle Covid-19

Local leaders and volunteer groups that were established to address the effects of global warming quickly switched gears to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

A view of Lombok Island, Indonesia, with Mount Rinjani or Gunung Rinjani which is an active volcano.

A view of Lombok Island, Indonesia, with Mount Rinjani or Gunung Rinjani which is an active volcano. Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

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In remote villages on Lombok, a rugged Indonesian island east of Bali, resilience to global warming means figuring out how to maintain water and food supplies through longer droughts punctuated by extreme rainstorms, and adapting to warming and rising seas that affect crucial fisheries.

The residents of the island are not relying on technology or engineering solutions in their preparations, at least for now. Instead, they have built a network of local leaders who know the environmental conditions and who can identify the strengths and weaknesses of their communities, down to the neighborhood level. 

And that grassroots approach has proved doubly useful. Since March it has enabled Lombok to meet the challenges of another crisis: the global coronavirus pandemic. Lombok has been better prepared than other island communities in the region, showing how climate resiliency can help society with a wider range of challenges. 

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The successful resiliency efforts on Lombok may hold lessons for a world in which more than 50 million people have been simultaneously affected by climate disasters—floods, droughts, hurricanes—and by Covid-19. Grassroots preparedness and local leaders who know local conditions, experts say, are key to helping communities withstand the combined disruptions of a changing climate and a global pandemic.

“We know that preparation has prevented the pandemic from spreading, and that is the best indication of why resilience work is so important,” said Kate Schecter, president of World Neighbors, a nonprofit community development organization that guided the resilience work on Lombok. “Even though Jakarta and Bali are still hot spots, we have been able to allow our communities on Lombok to resume working, with all the appropriate precautions.”

World Neighbors works in some of the poorest communities in the world—places with a tiny carbon footprint that did not cause global warming but are most vulnerable to its impacts, including sea level rise, drought and famine. 

Lombok, just a little bigger than Rhode Island, has a population of about 3 million and it is studded by a massive volcano, Mount Rinjani, which has a lake in the crater and another volcanic island in the lake. World Neighbors regional director, Edd Wright, said his organization, with partial funding from USAID, has helped train a cadre of community volunteers across Indonesia in 125 villages spread across three districts with about a half million residents. 

Our programs are about building capacity so that people are better prepared when disasters strike,” Wright said. These local leaders are prepared to step up and help themselves, their neighbors and communities when needed, for example, to set up, maintain and enforce protection for local water sources, he added.

“It requires a lot of time and effort,” Wright said. “It can be difficult convincing people, from the communities right up to national policy makers, of their worth. But the reason they are so important is simply that they save lives when disasters strike.” Targeting the grassroots level, he added, is critically important because it’s the community itself that is the first responder to a disaster.

Covid Response

The work that Wright and others have done paid off when the Covid-19 pandemic came to Lombok in March 2020. Being prepared for climate change helped the villages quickly prepare and implement emergency measures that limited community spread of the virus, including the installation of handwashing stations and the distribution of masks.

The emergency teams also quickly ramped up contact tracing to identify who might have traveled in a high-risk area, disinfectant spraying in public areas and routine visits with quarantined people to provide support during isolation. The emergency response teams also collected data on which households were most at risk of falling into poverty because of the pandemic and so would need assistance for basic food and non-food items.

Wright said the quick and decisive actions made people feel like they were being looked after by their government, for example, with the daily health and temperature checks of people in quarantine. As a result, they didn’t break the isolation rules as often as residents of other villages without the disaster teams.

“Our work has many names,” he said. “But, I think preparedness sums it up well. And this lack of preparedness has been why some countries have been so devastated by Covid.”

Community Building

Resilience needs to be baked deep into key systems like health care, water and food supplies and finances, said Schecter, of World Neighbors, who has worked on community development and resilience globally, including in Russia, Cambodia and Nepal. She added that these things are much harder to think about after a disaster strikes. “The communities we work in are isolated, and the people there have to take care of each other,” she said. 

One essential building block is creating spaces where all voices are included, encouraged and amplified, she said. In working in some of the poorest villages in Nepal, with people who don’t own any land, efforts to include women in community discussions came to fruition when they were able to realize their ideas for growing valuable edible mushrooms that generated income for the community.

“We emphasize people making money and having savings,” she said. “Small savings and credit groups can grow into larger cooperatives—groups of 20 to 30 people that loan to each other. We teach them basic financial literacy and they go out, start businesses and invest. And we try to make sure small businesses last a long time after we’re gone. We weave that into any kind of assistance.”

Schecter said if communities only fix one part of the puzzle, they won’t solve things for the future. Resilience has to be woven into all aspects of life. If you ignore any of the key pillars—food security, water, health, financial—the others can crumble. “And the best way to figure it out is to ask them to come together,” she said. “We say, in order for us to work with you, we need you to have some social cohesion.”