Discovering Pollution Around the World: Citarum River, Indonesia

Discovering Pollution Around the World: Citarum River, Indonesia

Citarum River is the third largest river in Java behind Bengawan Solo and Brantas. The 300 km-long river flows from Bandung Regency to Karawang Regency in West Java. It was once a beautiful, pristine river that helped civilizations thrive since 4th century and earlier.

The river is best known for its connection with Tarumanegara Kingdom, a Sundanese indianised kingdom that thrived from 4th to 7th century. The kingdom and the river shared the same name, Tarum, which was derived from an indigo plant (Tarum in Sundanese) that flourished around the area.

In recent times, the river provides electricity generation for Bandung regions and Greater Jakarta. The energy comes from operational hydroelectric power stations along the river’s length. Not just electrical power, there are also dams that supply irrigation water to rice paddies, such as Jatiluhur Dam.

Citarum in 1915-18 by Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures Wikimedia
Citarum in 1915-18 by Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures Wikimedia

Since a long time ago, people have been dependent of this river. However, rapid industrialization near the river that began in 1980 combined with the locals’ lack of waste management has made this this river so toxic and heavily polluted. This river has become one of the world’s most dirtiest and polluted rivers.

Pollution is sad yet inevitable in industrial areas. It’s relatively common in economically growing countries and somehow accepted. There are lots of polluted rivers out there, but you’ll see why Citarum is not simply a polluted river and why there should be an action for this problem.

When you first arrive at Citarum, the awful, foul stench is going to strike your nose. Now usually, when you smell something horrendous, then there’s a problem going on. And that is exactly what happens here. After the stench, you’re not going to see a river. It’s concealed by unimaginable amount of trash and waste floating on it. And if you do see the river, you’ll see dark green/blue or red-colored river.

If you decide to gather your courage and cross the river with a boat, be prepared. You’ll be crossing a lot of household waste like detergent, cooking materials, glass bottles, clothings, broken toys, sandals, shoes, as well as plastic waste (straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles, the usual).

And that’s not the worst. There are also lots of dead animals that has been floating around the river for who knows how long. There are dead fish, cats and rats, there’s even a bloated dead goat in the river. Combine that to human excrements, because the locals do their daily things in the river. You can (or can’t) imagine how dirty the water is.

Also, there are over a thousand industries near the river. And where do they dump their toxic chemical waste? Exactly, the river. This is the reason why the river changed color around the industries. You won’t see natural light brown-colored river water here. You’ll see foamy and unnatural-colored water instead.

Because we know that the locals depend their lives on this polluted river, we know that this pollution has a negative impact on them. The water, which has been tested, is proven toxic and it brings health problems. People can get cancer, respiratory problems, stomachache and diarrhea. The most common problem for the locals is skin problems and irritations.

There’s a case when a little girl has ongoing problems on her skin because her baths, her clothings, and everything that involves with water are sourced from the river. The doctor gave her medication and the vital solution; not using river water for the little girl. And it worked well.

But some people can’t afford to get clean water. Whether they like it or not, some have to do their cleaning, washing, and cooking from Citarum. The less fortunate locals who work as the river’s scavengers express their fear of what’s in the water, but because of their financial condition, they don’t know what else to do. Some kids also can’t help but have fun and take a plunge in the dirty river because that’s the only source of affordable entertainment they can have.

Not only humans, the river’s biodiversity also suffers from this pollution. Before, Citarum has many fish species such as walking catfish, suckermouth catfish, common carp, minnows, and many more. However, the polluted water caused the growth of wild water plants, mudskipper fish, and plankton. The fish population decreases rapidly ever since.

A 2008 research found only 20 species of fish left in Jatiluhur Dam. Before, there were recorded 34 species of fish. Now there isn’t even any records about the biodiversity of the river, and one fish species is reportedly missing from the dam. Because the fish had been largely gone, the fishermen turned to be garbage collector for living. One kilogram of gathered plastic waste only equals 1,334 Rupiahs ($0,1).

This problem also affect other animals, such as cattle. The water river is used to irrigate rice paddies. So, when the toxic and chemical wastes are heavy, water in the rice paddies turns to horrid color. Consequently, the rice deemed not fit for human consumption is fed to the cattle. Knowing this fact, it’s almost certain that they won’t live for long.

Mostly, the result of this pollution is because of the lack of proper waste management and education. There is also no support from the government nor there is strict law regarding this matter. Fortunately, there are efforts to save the river.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) committed to provide Indonesia a $500million for a wide-range cleanup and rehabilitation plan for the Citarum River basin. This cleanup plan is important because as mentioned before, Citarum connects to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, which gets around 80% of its water supply from the river.

Other than that, ADB also worked with local government and Ministry of Health. Together, they provided local groups some financial support so they can have businesses that turn trash to cash. The locals and the river have been receiving benefit from this support. People get money while the environment is also safer.

There are also French brothers, Gary Bencheghib and Sam Bencheghib, who are trying to make people aware that waste management is important. The brothers have paddled across Citarum in plastic bottle canoes and filmed their journey there so they can provide shocking visuals about the reality of the river.

They visited local schools to educate the students about zero waste lifestyle. They’ve donated their plastic bottle boats to an corporation of scavengers to help them clean the river as well. Their efforts didn’t go to waste. Gary stated that more people began to understand the issue and they asked him how they could help, but the Frenchmen said he was still thinking about the exact call of action.

As of currently, a military chief from Siliwangi will deploy 22 colonels and 5,000 troops to work on the once-pristine waterway. He also plans to install CCTV video surveillance units along its banks.

“Contamination with hazardous and toxic waste is dangerous. The mercury contamination level in the river has been above normal. We need a centralized command. I hope the West Java governor would coordinate all related parties so that we could work together for the sake of Citarum River,” said the military chief, Major-General Doni Monardo.

President Joko Widodo plans to issue new regulations to speed up prosecution. In a recent Facebook post, the president stated, “Starting mid-January, we will fix Citarum river from upstream to downstream. Damaged forest at the upstream area will be replanted with trees as green belts. And we will comb the areas along the river and take action against companies that dispose waste to the river.”

It’s really sad that a river can be so heavily polluted like Citarum. This is one of the reasons why education about waste management is crucial to start reducing waste and living a sustainable life. It’s possible that people who live around the river don’t really want this to happen, but they don’t know what else to do or how they should reuse/recycle their wastes.

In many stories, the locals frequently said that the river used to be really clean and clear. People who lived around it were in a much better condition than today. They lament that the river turned to be dirty and appalling. There is also scavenger who feels guilty about his old job in textile industry which exacerbates the river’s condition.

For now, we can only remain appreciative as well as hopeful that all of those and cleanup conservation efforts won’t cease. Hopefully, we can see a result that can make people and the environment happy. Even though the journey to completely cleaning up the river might not be easy, I think ‘slowly-but-sure’ method also works for the better future of Citarum.



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