MAJALAYA, Indonesia: It’s been called the world’s most polluted river by the World Bank. Murky, dense and dirty-brown – the water that runs through Citarum River in Indonesia’s West Java is toxic.
Yet, the river supports around 28 million people who rely on it for daily activities such as cooking, bathing and laundry.
Spanning nearly 300km, it is the longest river in Indonesia’s most populous province. It also supplies the provincial capital of Bandung as well as the country’s capital Jakarta with piped water.
The water is used to sustain fish farms, irrigate 400,000 hectares of paddy fields and fill reservoirs that generate about two gigawatts of hydropower, making it one of Indonesia’s most strategic river basins.
But for the people who live along the polluted river, it is not just the environmental impact that worries them, health problems have affected children and families.
INDUSTRIAL DUMPING SITE
The riverside town of Majalaya is located about 170km from Jakarta, and less than 50km away from the source of Citarum River in the sub-district of Kertasari.
Called “dollar city” in its heyday, Majalaya was able to supply up to 40 per cent of Indonesia’s textile needs, making it a major centre for Indonesia’s textile industry.
And it is those textile factories which are among the worst polluters of the Citarum.
Elements of the Environment (ELINGAN), a local NGO, estimates that around 1,500 factories dump about 280 tonnes of toxic waste per day into Citarium River. It is not uncommon to see the water turn from murky brown to black, sometimes even red and blue from chemical colouring, before returning to brown again further downstream.
“Why are these industries dumping toxic waste?” said Deni Riswandani, an activist from ELINGAN.
“According to the regulations for operating industries, it is mandatory for every industry to run a wastewater treatment plant. But the fact is, many industries bypass this and do not dispose of their waste through a wastewater treatment plant but instead, they dump it straight into the river.”
RASHES, HAIR FALL AND CONTAMINATION
Channel NewsAsia took a rubber raft down Citarum River, starting at the 20km mark. There was a sign which had been put up by Greenpeace, warning members of the public to beware of a toxic waste dumping hole.
The team witnessed an inky, foul-smelling, black liquid being released into the river’s muddy waters - the liquid never diluting.
Floating through the river’s course, we saw trash interspersed with shrubbery and twigs in a few locations, accompanied by debris, foam and smelly dumping sites.
We also saw tens of people who live on the banks of the Citarum, using its water for their daily activities.
People were using water from the river to wash their clothes. Others were fishing, despite knowing that the fish they eat will likely have been exposed to toxic waste.
“The fish doesn’t taste good anymore,” 64-year-old Adang told Channel NewsAsia. “We eat it because we have to fill our stomachs with food.”
Adang, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, lives by the river bank with his family, including four grandchildren.
Construction worker Irwansyah, 37, has a modest cottage in a residential compound less than 10m away from a dumping hole.
His family uses water from the river to cook, clean and bathe – with severe consequences.
Besides having to contend with the terrible smell which emanates from the site, the toxic water has also caused his daughters to develop skin ailments such as rashes, hair fall, and scabies.
“We can’t breathe sometimes, and my daughter’s scalp began to itch and her hair started to fall out,” he said while moving his daughter’s hair back to show the rash and bald spot.
“Her skin is itchy. We’ve been putting medicine on it for a month but it hasn’t gone away until now. My younger child previously had spots on her arm – but I brought her to a local clinic and once it was treated with an ointment she was cured.”
Their neighbour, 14-year-old Asep has scabies, a skin infestation regularly seen on those who live near the Citarum.
“Sometimes around 12 in the afternoon, or four in the evening, the water here is already black in colour. Even just now, the water turned black, frothy and smelly, until all the children playing outside (in the fields) ran into their homes,” Mr Irwansyah told Channel NewsAsia.
He has brought the matter to the attention of authorities, who came by his home to conduct a check. However, Mr Irwansyah said he has not seen any improvement after the inspection.
According to ELINGAN’s Mr Deni, data from local clinics in the area showed that skin conditions are the top two of 10 most common ailments in the community.
There are reports of previous research carried out by the Blacksmith Institute in 2013, which found that lead levels in the river were more than 1,000 times the US standards for drinking water, while aluminum, manganese and iron were significantly higher than recommended levels.
SEEPING INTO CROPS
Using water from the Citarum for irrigation has also contaminated paddy fields, hindering the healthy growth of crops evident from their discolouration.
Fifty-six-year-old Yusup, who comes from a family of farmers, said waste from factories began affecting their harvests since 1995.
“In a year we usually harvest our crops three times, but now with the contamination it gets delayed, sometimes it can be twice a year, sometimes three. If there are floods then the crops become rotten,” he explained.
Even toiling away in the fields is a challenge – Mr Yusup said he coated his body in a mixture of salt and soap, to prevent any direct contact with the toxic water used.
“There is an agricultural area nearby, which under normal circumstances would yield nine tonnes of crops in one hectare of land. But after being contaminated by toxic waste from these industries, the harvest only yields 4 tonnes of crops,” ELINGAN’s Mr Deni said, as he further explained the damaging and long-lasting impact of the industrial waste.
Mr Yusup said he feels the government appears to be paying less attention to the plight of farmers, seemingly protecting business interests instead.
CLEANING UP CITARUM
After years of failed clean-up plans, President Joko Widodo earlier this year announced an ambitious goal – to revitalise Citarum River and make its water safe to drink by 2025.
“Citarum River that was once clear is now the most polluted. Let us unite to clean the Citarum. We will try as soon as possible to clean it and hopefully in the next seven years it can be a source of drinking water,” the president said on his Twitter account.
Mr Widodo requested that all levels of government – both central and regional – work together, starting from the preparation of concepts to their implementation and supervision in the field. This included efforts in river management as well.
In March, the president signed off on a regulation to set up a special taskforce dedicated to the river’s clean-up, consisting of various ministries, officials, police and military personnel.
“Actually, a road-map to handle the Citarum had already been signed in 2013, but each institution worked independently. What we need is for them to work together in order to reach a common goal,” Safri Burhanuddin, a Deputy Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister, told Channel NewsAsia in an interview at his office.
The Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs is overseeing the revitalisation project.
Under the current efforts of the government, Mr Safri said there were three key points that authorities were focused on handling - domestic waste, industrial waste and natural waste.
In January, military personnel began clean-up efforts, picking up domestic trash that were thrown into the river.
They regularly conduct patrols and organise clean-ups. Local authorities have also been instructed to handle domestic waste appropriately, while Mr Safri said authorities will work to educate members of the community on properly disposing of trash.
The Environment and Forestry Ministry will oversee the replanting of trees in the upstream region to prevent erosion and sedimentation.
The hardest challenge for authorities is tackling industrial waste. “Only 10 per cent of factories along the river put their waste through a wastewater management plant,” said Mr Safri.
Offending factories were issued a warning last year. “Your time is finished. Now all that’s left is enforcing the law. We’ve given them ample time for warnings, so they can’t blame us,” he added.
Factories proven to have broken the rules could have their permits revoked.
MAKING MORE EFFORT
Despite these efforts, activists remain sceptical that the clean-up goal will be achieved. They feel that authorities should go straight to the source to seal-off dumping holes instead.
“We, Elements of the Environment, have been sealing dumping-hole sources - a direct source of disposal from industry to water sources. We have sealed around 213 of them with concrete so far, after which there has been a reduction in terms of the quantity of toxic waste disposed,” Mr Deni told Channel NewsAsia.
He also said he hoped that the provincial and central governments would follow suit, as even with evidence, enforcing the law on environmental offenders was a long and expensive process.
Authorities meantime remain optimistic, saying they are also planning to build more water treatment and sanitation facilities.
“One of the investments is the construction of a joint wastewater treatment plant. If a wastewater treatment plant needs 10 or 20 industries behind it, we need hundreds of plants. Now, it’s a matter of finding the right location to put it,” Mr Safri said.
He added: “The construction of this infrastructure for sanitary purposes should be well-planned and done properly, so that waste does not go directly into the river, but is processed.”