Features | Environment | Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s Dirty Secret

The Citarum River is Indonesia’s lifeline. But polluted and poisoned, it now poses serious health risks. Elise Potaka investigates the problem–and possible solutions.

By Elise Potaka for

Cangkuang village is a small knot of brick houses and muddy lanes, half an hour’s drive out of Bandung, the capital of Indonesia’s West Java province. Located on the banks of the Citarum River, the smell of cooking food mixes with something more pungent wafting up from the nearby muddy flow.

On a recent visit, locals were keen to talk about the impact of the river on their lives. Down a narrow laneway, villager Bousana pointed to a mark on the outside brick wall of a house. The line, which was well above her head, showed just how high the Citarum rises when it floods.

‘If it rains all day the water will come up to this level – this happened two months ago,’ she said. ‘It also flooded when there was a landslide; two neighbourhoods were affected. My house was destroyed and I had to move.’

The houses on the Citarum’s upstream are only 10 metres or so from the river’s edge. Standing on the banks, there’s an obvious problem – the riverbed is actually higher than the land on which the houses sit. The only protection comes in the form of massive dirt walls built to hold back the water. But still, villagers say floods are common and much more frequent than a decade ago.

In recent years, erosion caused by land clearing has washed sediment downstream, contributing to the riverbed’s current level. Local resident and environmentalist Sunardhi Yogantara said the land clearing, which is often illegal, is the result of more people moving into the river-basin to try to scratch out a living.

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‘When people are thirsty of space to cultivate just for their subsistence. they go into the catchment area, let’s say the forest. Then to start cultivating they need to have a good economical commodity, so they have to cut down the trees to allow enough sun’s rays to grow their cultivation.’

The river is not only an inconvenience to villagers when it floods — it’s also a health hazard. The water near Cangkuang was speckled with the colours of modern-day living. Bright plastic rubbish – drink bottles, plastic bags, food containers — lined the banks. Canals filled with dark, sluggish-looking water from Bandung emptied into the mainstream. In some places, makeshift toilets, shielded from view by gaudy plastic curtains, jutted out and emptied directly into the flow.

Sunardhi Yogantara, who belongs to a group called Care for the Environment, said we were lucky our visit coincided with the rainy season when the water level is high; during the dry the river is even more ‘colourful’.

But even more worrying for locals is the pollution we couldn’t see. On this stretch of the Citarum, textile and electronics factories as well as slaughterhouses have waterfront views, as does a massive coal-fired power station. Of the 1500 factories upstream, only 20 per cent have a comprehensive water management system.

When I spoke with Lusia Boer, the Director of Environmental Pollution Control at the West Java Environmental Management Agency, she could easily rattle off the Citarum’s problems, but preferred to talk in terms of risk. She said that while domestic waste comes in the biggest quantities, pollution from factories poses the greatest threat to life along the river.

‘Industrial waste is more toxic since it contains metals and other substance,’ she told me at her office in Bandung. ‘Factories surrounding farming areas reduce the productivity of the land. Fisheries are also affected – if there is less oxygen in the water, then the productivity of the fish will also be lower.’

Boer’s agency is working on a local level to try to contain problems, just as a handful of other organisations are doing on different sections of the waterway. But she admits that their efforts on the 270-kilometer river will have little effect without some kind of coordinated approach. Previous efforts, including a project to improve flows by straightening the river, and a flood mitigation scheme on the upper stretches, have had a limited impact; they only moved problems from one area to another.

The Citarum River is one of Indonesia’s key waterways — it supports a population of 28 million people, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and provides water to the country’s capital, Jakarta. It also underpins 20 per cent of Indonesia’s industrial output and five per cent of the country’s rice production. But two decades of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, along with poor enforcement of environmental regulations, is now threatening all this.

Recognising the magnitude of the problems, the Indonesian government is now proposing a new integrated approach. According to Mudjiaji, Director of the government’s Citarum River Bureau, the Integrated Citarum Water Resources Management Investment Program (ICWRMIP) will see a whole range of measures implemented simultaneously. These include a ‘program about conservation, a program about utilisation, a program about disaster management’ as well as community empowerment and education measures. It will be a multi-stakeholder approach, he said.

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Mudjiaji put the total amount needed to clean up the Citarum at US$3.3 billion.
In December last year, the ADB approved a $500 million loan under its multi-tranche financing facility. The first tranche of $50 million has been committed to improving the West Tarum Canal on the lower stretches of the Citarum.

Sunardhi Yogantara, who lives 50 metres from the river’s edge, is cautiously positive. ‘I was one who criticised the original plan three years ago,’ he admitted. ‘Then I was more or less involved in the improvement of the plan until they arrived at the current plan, which is very integrated. And I put a lot of hope in it, as one of the affected communities.’

But other activists have attacked the initiative and the ADB loan.

Downstream from Cangkuang, in a riverside town called Bekasi, I met with members of local NGO, elKAIL. We talked beside their stretch of the river. In front of us a man cast a fishing net into the water while shouting across to another man bathing in the flow. By his side, a woman washed clothes and not far away, a farmer called Nilan tended to his crops. ‘It’s prohibited to plant here,’ Nilan told me, ‘but everyone else is doing it and there are no inspections.’

Only 500 metres upstream, the plastic walls of makeshift toilets flapped in the breeze, just a few metres from a row of illegal dwellings. Behind these dwellings, lines of factories crowded the streets.

Ridwan Arifin from elKAIL agreed that urgent action is needed, but he questioned why the government borrowed such a large amount in one hit when the cleanup is scheduled to take 15 years. ‘One big problem is the debt – even when we don’t need loans for certain things we borrow money anyway,’ he said. ‘Why not borrow money in phases, and only if we need it? It just creates a loophole for corruption. These are big complications that the Citarum programs don’t need.’

elKAIL works alongside a group called the Friends of Citarum. Coordinator Dadang Sudadrja told me the project has no anti-corruption measures – a big oversight in a country known for bribe taking and graft.

He also criticised the resettlement and compensation plan for the many poor people living illegally along the river. In the first stage of the cleanup, the government is making a distinction between legal and illegal tenants, only offering land compensation to those who can prove ownership.

Dadang Sudadrja and other critics say this is contrary to the ADB’s own resettlement policy, which states that compensation should not be based on a tenant’s legal status.

The ADB’s Summary of the Handbook on Resettlement: A Guide to Good Practice says that a key element of good practice is to ‘compensate all affected persons, including those without title to land, for all their losses at replacement rates.’

But Chris Morris, the ADB senior water resources engineer responsible for the Citarum program, says the focus will be on livelihood restoration.

‘The principal of the ADB and the government resettlement policy and plan is that their livelihoods will be restored or bettered to the pre-project condition,’ he said. ‘So a compensation amount needs to be tailored to the individual loss of habitat and or income.’

When asked about this issue, Citarum River Bureau Director Mudjiaji said it was hard to discern which illegal tenants are genuinely poor. ‘Not all of the illegal dwellers are poor people, no’, he said. ‘Everybody thinks those who are illegal are poor. No. They have also another house. They’re traders, most of them are traders.’

While Mudjiaji insisted these tenants will still have access to some resettlement assistance, he also questioned why illegal tenants should have the same rights as those who’ve followed the law.

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‘Can we tolerate people who break the law? That’s the problem.The ADB said illegal and legal people (should receive the) same treatment. How come? They’ve become the presidents – because I’m illegal I have compensation the same with the people, the good citizens.’

Mudjiaji also played down concerns about the lack of an anti-corruption mechanism built into the plan: ‘The conditions have already changed in Indonesia, we have the anti-corruption committee. Now it has become better and better. Everybody’s changed.’

The West Tarum Canal, which will be targeted as part of the first stage, feeds water into Jakarta. Around 80 percent of the capital’s water comes from the Citarum, and ensuring its quality has become a huge concern.

But this program has also come under fire. Nadia Hadad from the Bank Information Centre, an NGO that monitors ADB projects, is one of those who has questioned the logic of it.

‘The dirtiest area is in the upstream area,’ she said. ‘We don’t understand why they started the project in the downstream area instead of rehabilitating the upstream area first. Maybe it’s a political thing because it’s connected to Jakarta and it’s in the interests of the people in Jakarta.’

The government says the upstream is already being worked on in other programs, and that this area will be targeted in future stages of the ICWRMIP.

Speaking with locals in both Bekasi and Cangkuang, no-one seemed to know about the cleanup plan, or the controversy surrounding it. What they did know is that the river looks dirty, provides less fish and floods more often than before.

As we peered into the murky water peppered with colourful plastic, the secretary of the Cangkuang village council Nana shook his head as he spoke.

‘It was really nice here before the floods.The water of the Citarum used to be very clear. Back then you could toss a coin in and watch it hit the bottom, but not anymore.’