“After all these years the Merapi has become an old friend. I understand its dynamics. I’m looking forward to the 2020 eruption, which will be a small one.” Vicky Ariyanti smiles when she talks about the volcano that became the central background of her dissertation Governing a Volcanic River Basin: A Cultural Sensitive Inquiry into the Current Water Resources Management Practices of Opak Sub-Basin, Indonesia.

In 2010 Ariyanti started working as a government officer in Yogyakarta, after finishing her degree in urban and regional studies. “I didn’t know which field I’d be working in, but it turned out to be water management.” Only months before she started, the Merapi erupted more violently than it had done in a century. Streams of lava and mud killed over three hundred people, and many more were injured. “Most of the people on the hill were killed in their sleep, it was very sad.” She herself lived in the centre of the city that became covered in a big cloud of volcanic dust.


Vicky Ariyanti 3 – de promotie – levien willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

“I remember the chaos of all the people running, trying to leave the city by train. All the flights were cancelled. Since I had a newborn baby, only four months old, we were prioritised and managed to get on a train.” Her grandmother, living in Yogyakarta, was already ill with pneumonia and died.

In the aftermath of the eruption, Ariyanti decided to dedicate her work to the impact of the eruption on the volcanic river basin. “We had survived, so I wanted to do something for the future generation. Almost nothing was recorded of the last big eruption of the Merapi. By documenting this one and its impact, the people in this region will be better prepared when there is another eruption. Around 3.5 million people live there; I wanted to know how they managed.”


Her first focus was on water management practices in the area, and she had in-depth discussions with over fifty respondents. “I found the first actors through the local government, but it snowballed into a network of volunteers that play a key role in the local communities. For instance: ‘hamlet chiefs’, who use certain knowledge about water that has been handed down for several generations.”

Because of this, she soon added the cultural and ecological perspectives to her research. “These local people know for instance that when you see a catfish in the water, it’s polluted. But other fish are signs that it’s safe to drink. After an eruption the scientific labs are very busy so it might take ten days to discover the same, life-saving information.” Her work with the local inhabitants of the Merapi river basin gave her a new perspective on doing research. “I learned that knowledge is forever expanding; it keeps adding up and it’s always a mix of scientific and practical information. As scientists we have to be aware of this process. We can’t be snobs, not listening to others. We are not always right and even if we are right, we are not always the righteous ones.”

Hamlet chiefs

With the broader research perspective she also found out that these communities are closely organised. “They feel they are one body and are very protective of each other. A part of that is they believe if they help someone, their reward will be in the afterlife.” This makes the hamlet chiefs the main hubs for giving and receiving information. “A lot of villages have ‘sister villages’ with whom they are in close contact. I made a map of all of these lines of communication.” The map also includes the relevant contacts at the local government and water organisations, as well as the financial streams.

“With this map we now know how to organise water management up to the local level. That can be used for other hazards, as well as on a national and international level for disaster management, but also decision-making in budgeting and planning.”


Ariyanti did a large part of her PhD in Rotterdam. “My children went to school here and now speak Dutch. My grandmother learned to speak Dutch in school when Indonesia was still a colony. Once a month she met up with a group of older ladies, to speak Dutch together and drink tea. She would have liked that my children now know the language as well.”

She hopes that her research will make a difference. “My promise after the eruption was that I would do something. It has been a hard journey, but it’s rewarding. I think my grandmother would have been proud.”