Will the Citarum river ever be clean?
Anne-Fleur Delaistre

JAKARTA - The color of the brackish water running down the drain across Pak Udis’ paddy field changes everyday: it goes from blue to green or red. One only needs to take a look around to understand why. A textile factory was built a few meters away from this Indonesian peasant’s parcel. Over the last decades, hundreds of factories have settled in the area. If the jeans manufactured in the factories are petrol blue, the water used to irrigate the fields is blue. If the fabrics are red, the water turns reddish.

Crop yields have largely decreased since factories have started to discharge wastewater in the neighboring canals. “This rice ear is empty, there is no grain”, says Deni Riswandi, showing a sample from Pak Udis’ field. “Harvests usually take place every six months. But with this polluted rice, it takes way longer. Even after six months, this ear will remain empty.”

Deni Riswandani, in his fifties, is the leader of the protest movement in the village of Majalaya. His goal is to inform local population on the effects of water pollution of the Citarum River, in West Java.

Majalaya is the heartland of the textile industry in Indonesia. Out of 600 factories built along the Citarum River, 170 are located in the village. Yet, 90 percent of the factories lack efficient water waste treatment systems. They discharge at least 1,320 liters or 280 tons of waste everyday in the river and its tributaries, according to the West Java Environment Protection Agency.

Ibu Noor lives a few kilometers away from the blue or red rice paddy fields. In her neighborhood, there is no running water. To shower, wash the food, or answer nature's call, local villagers use water wells. Every time Noor takes a shower, her skin itches afterwards. She has red spots all over her arms. The well water comes from the Citarum River. In the Majalaya district, 700 people have had skin diseases and 300 have suffered from diarrhea.

“I’m scared of course, especially for my children, but what can we do? There is no other water supply,” reveals Ibu Noor in a sad voice. “Children have skin allergies from head to toe. These allergies come and go,” adds Iyim. Nevertheless, it is difficult for these women to openly blame the factories: their husbands, like most men in the village, work there.

Supplying Gap and Marks & Spencer

“The government has forced the local villagers to accept a small financial compensation, ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 rupiahs (from $2 to $5*), paid by the factories. On top of the pollution they create, the companies sometimes distribute non-drinkable water to the locals,” protests Dewi. Some of these factories produce goods for famous brands such as Gap and Marks & Spencer.

A government decree stipulates that factories must recycle water before discharging it, but this measure is not enforced. “The government does not carry out enough tests,” says Dewi Riswandani. “They just watch the color of the water change. And when they test water samples and report pollution, they never prosecute anyone.” Actually, two factories have been prosecuted but trials drag on forever and nobody has ever been sentenced.

Besides, the tests carried out by the government lack transparency. The results are unclear, no matter who is in charge of the testing. “We have found heavy metals in the water and in the sediments,” says Windya Wardhani, the person in charge of environmental affairs for the West Java government, without giving further details.

One hundred times the legal limit

The industrial hygiene and toxicology laboratory of the Bandung Institute of Technology, has found different types of heavy metals in the samples: lead, zinc, chrome and mercury. A study carried out a few years ago by a private laboratory showed that the level of mercury in the water was 100 times the legal amount.

“Since last year, the government has taken a closer look on the matter,” notes Dewi Riswandini. “But not every factory uses waste recovery systems, even when they have one,” adds Windya Wardhani. “It is too expensive”. And many discharge their waste at night to avoid controls.

The challenge is huge: 15 million Indonesians live on the Citarum river banks and 25 million people use its water. The river provides 80 percent of the Jakarta water supplies and fuels power plants in Java and Bali.

“The criticisms we receive are unfair,” says Kevin Hartanto, secretary-general of the Indonesian Textile Association. “The Citarum pollution mostly comes from domestic waste. People discharge their garbage and human waste into the river.”

One only needs to take a walk on the Citarum river banks to witness this sad reality. There are impromptu toilets all along the river’s banks. There are so many plastic bags floating down the river that in some parts you can’t even see the water's surface. “We have nowhere else to throw away our garbage,” reveals one of the local villagers.

For the past three years, the Asian Development Bank has been trying to clean up the Citarum River with the help of local associations. Yet the challenge is huge. Despite investment of $500 million in the project, few Indonesians believe that the river will ever be clean.

*an earlier version of this article included an incorrect currency conversion

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

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