Forty miles east of Jakarta, a river over 186 miles (300km) long winds across the island of Java. For thousands of years the Citarum River has been an important resource for the Indonesian people. Today it continues to support fishing, agriculture, electricity generation, and sewerage for nearly 30 million residents.
When Indonesia experienced a manufacturing boom, little attention was paid to key components of infrastructure. Proper framework for waste disposal was largely neglected. As a result, manufacturers and residents abused the river, leaving the Citarum one of the most polluted waterways in the world.
The river has a relationship with mankind dating to the 4th century A.D., when the Tarumanagara kingdom was said to have flourished on the banks of the Citarum. Early residents relied on the water for everything from bathing to waste disposal. For centuries the smaller populations and lack of heavy industry tempered the ecological threat from the poor disposal practices. By the late 20th century, it had become a significant health hazard. The higher cost of fuel in the 1970s forced businesses to cut expenses. Identifying cheaper labor was one avenue for companies to improve their profit and loss statements.
One option was Java, one of the most populous islands in the world – and a region desperately haunted by poverty. The island’s most abundant resource is labor, which is oversupplied and drives down cost. This attracted industry to Indonesia.
Its geography made the Citarum River an easy choice for businesses with export considerations.
For decades the river has been forced to swallow human, industrial, and toxic waste. By the turn of the century improper waste disposal had long been an endemic problem.
Before long Indonesia became a major manufacturing center. When industry migrated to Java, factories producing everything from electronics to textiles started dotting the landscape.
But as the number of factories along the Citarum bank has grown, so has the amount of industrial toxic waste discharged into its waters. Snowballing the river’s rate of deterioration is the population boom in Java, which has increased the deposit of human waste as well.
Over time the unregulated growth of industry increasingly abused the Citarum River. Water quality deteriorates significantly just outside the factories, where evacuation pipes spew a toxic cocktail turning the river black and cloudy.
Elsewhere, masses of floating trash create a film of junk over the surface of the river. Human waste collects in unsanitary pools along the shore, cultivating disease.
In some cases the waste completely conceals the river. If not for the occasional boat navigating through the garbage, it would be difficult to discern the water below.
Those who are cognizant and willing to take corrective action lack the resources to do so.
Residents along the Citarum have adapted. One man washing used bags in the water acknowledges the chemical run-off helps kill bacteria and rinse his scavenged merchandise prior to re-sale. Children bathe and play in the Citarum every day, using encountered garbage as toys.
Ironically the river’s waste also provides for mankind; entrepreneurial recyclers who scour the river for plastic are able to monetize their collection.
However the negative economic impact is far more immense. The effects of industry’s toxic waste trickle downstream. Farms along the river have no choice but to use the contaminated flows as a water source for crops.
Rice ears produce fewer grains while the time between harvests nearly doubles, thinning already weak margins for Java growers. Aggravating the issue for farmers are the lower prices Citarum crops fetch at market.
Smaller and substandard in quality, produce from river farms must be discounted to stay competitive.
Despite the warnings, residents have no choice but to continue using Citarum water for bathing and washing clothes.
For consumption they know to boil the water, although that won’t necessarily make it safe to drink. Boiling the water would kill bacteria, but it does not remove heavy metals or toxic chemicals.
The abundant labor supply means employers can immediately quash labor disturbances; a strike against a waste offender would result in job loss and wouldn’t clean up the river.
The issues go beyond the offenders; Java simply lacks the infrastructure and means to do it right. As long as residents of the island lack access to sewerage, they will defecate in the river. With no official waste disposal system, garbage will continue to be left along the banks while used bottles and cans are tossed in the waterway.
In 2008 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) took action. The group announced a loan of $500 million dollars to be dispersed over the next 15 years to clean the river. In addition to cleaning the Citarum, the funds would help re-educate local communities on proper care for the precious water source.
The ADB hopes to reverse the negative environmental trend by addressing everything from pollution and sanitation to deforestation – citing the quality of the water as then being very close to raw sewage levels.
By November of 2011, large-scale revitalization efforts of the Citarum began with an estimated $3.5 billion dollar booster via government subsidy. The rehabilitation program was to be implemented along a targeted 180 kilometers of the river.
Plans called for dredging and removing sedimentary waste from 8 districts and 3 cities along the waterway. A public education program would inform residents how to properly care for the river and what to do with waste.
Thanks to the efforts of the Asian Development Bank and cooperation from local government, the Citarum River’s condition has improved. Progress has been slow, but steady; there is a visible improvement, but much work remains to be done.
Debris no longer lingers in huge flotillas of trash, but factories along the banks still expel toxic waste. The river continues to serve as a repository for human excrement for the areas of Java lacking modern sewer systems.
It is possible but there is no single answer to the solution. Success requires cooperation from factories, farms, government, and inhabitants alike.
The Integrated Citarum Water Resources Management Investment Program (ICWRMIP) is one project attempting to bring participants together by raising awareness of issues plaguing the river.
The shared vision–referred to as CITA-CITARUM–includes “an overview of strategy, planning, and implementation which synergize the current situation with vision and output” to achieve the goal of cleaner and more efficient water resource management.
While the goal has not yet been achieved, recent positive steps give hope of a solution in the future.
Video from the Asian Development Bank: A Clean Future for World’s Dirtiest River