Will the Citarum river ever be clean?
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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