Climate Witness: Pak Azhar, Indonesia | WWF

Climate Witness: Pak Azhar, Indonesia

Posted on
01 June 2010
My name is Azhar, 32, from Balikukup island, Berau, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. The weather is increasingly uncertain and unpredictable. I do not understand the causes, but clearly, the condition is bringing changes to my life as a sea cucumber fisherman.

English | Español | Français | DutchРусский | 中文

I have been living in Balikukup since 1999. Balikukup is a small island of 18 ha consisting mainly of sandbanks. However, the island’s size is not fixed as it depends on the tides. During low tide, a large sandbank is exposed, extending 1 km towards the sea.

The weather is a significant factor in the work of a sea cucumber fisherman

I started collecting sea cucumbers in 2001. There are 2 ways to catch sea cucumbers; some fishermen just search on the beaches around the island during low tide at night, while others dive underwater, down to depths of 10 m.

Sea cucumber fishermen are highly dependent on the weather to do their job. Fishermen cannot catch good harvests during rainy or stormy weather, as sea cucumbers hide underneath the sand during that time. Therefore, it is important for a sea cucumber fisherman to predict what the weather will be like before going to work.

Unpredictable weather

Usually I observe the weather at dusk or in the early evening to predict whether it is going to rain or be stormy at night. But nowadays, it is getting harder to predict the weather accurately. For example, early evening yesterday I predicted that there would be no rain at night, but around midnight and early morning heavy rain came down.

In the old days, we fishermen could predict the weather. But not anymore. The elders on our island also mentioned the same thing. Since 2002, Atang, one of the fisherman elders whom we regard as the best expert in predicting the weather in Balikukup, said that the weather was getting unpredictable. Before, Atang could produce a very good prediction, even for the course of a full year.

‘Bulan janda’ or Widow month

One example of unpredictable weather is the gone phenomena of ‘bulan janda’, or ‘widow month’. It is called widow-month because when the fishermen went to the sea during the event, they rarely came home safely. Thus, their wives became widows. Widow month is an annual event when the wind blows very strongly for 44 days from the south. This wind stops for a short period of time (half an hour), and then goes back to blowing very hard. During that time it is impossible for fishermen to go at sea.

Fishermen who had saved enough money and food supply did not need to go at sea during ‘widow month’ because the conditions were too dangerous. However, other fishermen had no other option but to go to sea during the event.

The phenomenon of ‘widow month’ does not exist anymore. The last time it happened was in 1991 according to fishermen. After 1991, during the supposedly ‘widow-month’, there could be calm periods for up to 2 weeks. None of the fishermen understands why the ‘widow month’ phenomenon has slowly disappeared.

No clue when money will come

The unpredictable weather is a disadvantage for us fishermen because we no longer know when we can go fishing. It is difficult for us to predict when we will make money. Before, we could estimate when was the right time to make income and put some money on the side, as we could predict when we can go fishing. Now, whenever we have good weather, we just go fishing. We can no longer make financial plans.

Credit: WWF-Indonesia / Primayunta


Scientific review

Reviewed by: Dr Heru Santoso, Project Coordinator of the TroFCCA (Tropical Forests and Climate Change Adaptation) project, Indonesia

The witnesses told three natural phenomena that they considered climate related. They are increased land erosion, higher tides and unpredictable weather. Even though non-climatic factor could contribute to these phenomena, for example an increase in land erosion could be due to land mismanagement, or a higher tide could be the subsequent of regional subsidence, etc. However, in all three different locations the people observed an increase of wave energy and increasing unpredictable weather that could affect the sustainability of their villages and their livelihood.

There are very few scientific literatures to report whether the observed phenomena in this specific region are related to climate change. This region is open to Sulawesi and Sulu seas as flow paths of oceanic current from the western Pacific Ocean to Indian Ocean. Higher tides in Berau area could be related to the increase of sea surface level in the western Pacific during La Niña events. This phenomenon recently has become noticeable than in the past probably because global warming has accentuated the extent of this climate mechanism (Mimura et al. 2007).

For the same reason, unpredictable and abrupt change of weather has become noticeable. Abrupt changes are usually associated with high wind speed which could only happen if there is a significant difference in pressures between two areas. Striking heat, in particular over a heat sensitive land area, under a warmer condition could generate this high pressure difference quickly. Land sensitivity to heat is higher if the forest cover has gone or heavily degraded. The ‘widow month’, a regular phenomenon of strong southerly wind that has been disappearing, is normally associated with the monsoonal trade wind in which the easterly wind from eastern Indonesia turn northward to Asia. Global warming or higher regional temperature could alter the distribution of regional or subregional energy concentration and could also alter the scale and extent of circulation.

Therefore, global warming could have contributed to the increasing trend of recurrences of natural phenomena as reported by witnesses. However, it is quite proper to verify whether this global warming has accentuated climate mechanisms in this subregion by comparing with other climate variables. For example, during La Niña events warm waters from the east flow to the west and usually bringing more rains. The high tides in the Berau region which could be explained by this mechanism could be verified with rainfall data during that particular time of the events, preferably with a long period of observation data.

All articles are subject to scientific review by a member of the Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel.
Pak Azhar, Climate Witness
© WWF-Indonesia / Marco Astan
© Sony Japan
Azhar and his family
© WWF-Indonesia / Marco Astan
During lowtide, the sandbank can be exposed for 1km
© WWF-Indonesia / Marco Astan
Berau, Indonesia
© WWF-Indonesia / Marco Astan