Now, the army has been called in to clean its black and putrid waters. Joe Wallen reports from Java. Pictures by Jack Taylor. W hen Enjang first experienced stomach pain a year ago he ignored it. The father of three, from the village of Ciherang in West Java, was instead focused on the upcoming rice harvest. But today he is bedridden with stage three colorectal cancer and doctors have put his chances of survival at just 30 per cent.
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Yet, the river supports around 28 million people who rely on it for daily activities such as cooking, bathing and laundry. 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.
The black waste is toxic and brings a torrid smell with it. Photo: Chandni Vatvani. 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. Members of the community use water from the river for their daily activities.
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. Inky, black, liquid waste is released into the river from factories. 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. Irwansyah and his family live in a residential compound located next to a toxic waste dumping hole. Adang, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, lives by the river bank with his family, including four grandchildren.
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.
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. Using water from the Citarum causes skin ailments and in some cases, even hairfall. Their neighbour, year-old Asep has scabies, a skin infestation regularly seen on those who live near the Citarum. 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. The smell that emanates from the toxic waste dumping hole near Irwansyah's home is unbearable at times.
There are reports of previous research carried out by the Blacksmith Institute in , which found that lead levels in the river were more than 1, times the US standards for drinking water, while aluminum, manganese and iron were significantly higher than recommended levels. 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 Pollution and waste from factories impact crop harvest. 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. Farmers say contamination from factories stunts the growth of their crops, turning some parts a reddish colour.
Mr Yusup said he feels the government appears to be paying less attention to the plight of farmers, seemingly protecting business interests instead. 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 Let us unite to clean the Citarum.
Mounds of trash are interspersed with twigs and shrubbery. 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 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. A sign put up by Greenpeace at the km mark warns of a toxic waste dumping hole.
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.
Offending factories were issued a warning last year. 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. Deni Riswandani, an activist with Elements of the Environment, a local NGO, says more effort must be made to resolve the issue. 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. If a wastewater treatment plant needs 10 or 20 industries behind it, we need hundreds of plants.
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Deni Riswandani pushes his canoe filled with scavenged trash toward his village on the banks of the Citarum River. Demi travels up to eight miles a day on the polluted river to collect plastic and other recyclables. Image by Larry C. Indonesia, Deni Riswandani scavenges for recyclable trash on the Citarum River. On some parts of Indonesia's Citarum River, trash is so thick, it will support person's weight.
The toxic waste that enters Indonesia’s Citarum River, one of the world's most polluted
Yet, the river supports around 28 million people who rely on it for daily activities such as cooking, bathing and laundry. 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. The black waste is toxic and brings a torrid smell with it. Photo: Chandni Vatvani.