I once lingered at Pont d’Iena Bridge staring at the River Seine, which flows beautifully at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in the city of Paris. The clean surface of the iconic river, as seen from the bridge, had successfully entranced me and my memory flew southeast to my peaceful village near the Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park in Jambi, Indonesia. I remembered my childhood friend, the Batanghari River.
Sadly, the Batanghari is no longer as clean and clear as it was 18 years ago when I was a child. Yes, the longest river in Sumatra is now muddy, dirty, and polluted, joining hundreds of other rivers throughout Indonesia that have long contained harmful chemicals. Research by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry showed that 75 percent of rivers in the country are seriously polluted, 52 of which are categorized as heavily polluted, and 118 watersheds out of 450 are critically polluted. These bitter facts are certainly not good news for the people in the archipelagic country, especially those who live in the countryside like my fellow villagers. For generations, they have harnessed river water for multiple purposes such as bathing, cooking, fishing, and even drinking.
There are several main reason why numerous rivers in Indonesia are badly damaged.
First, rivers often serve as the endpoint for household and industrial wastes. Even now, the majority of urban and rural settlements in Indonesia do not have proper waste management to prevent household pollutants from sweeping down to lower ground, including rivers. As a result, the Ciliwung River in Jakarta, Singaraja River in Bali, and Brantas River in East Java for example, have been severely contaminated with hazardous substances originating from residential houses.
While the Indonesian government already has tough regulations in place through, among others, Law No. 32/2009 on Environmental Protection and Management, enforcement is still far from effective. Local governments are highly dependent on businesses in their area, and thus reluctant to take strong measures against companies and factories spilling their toxic wastes into nearby rivers. Local industries are unquestionably top job providers, which employ hundreds of thousands of residents. Not only that, they also oftentimes become the main sources of income for the local government through taxes. Thus, disturbing their operations or even shutting down their businesses could result in a severe loss for the local government, massive unemployment, and possibly political instability triggered by social unrest.
As a consequence of local governments’ unwillingness to enforce regulations, more and more rivers are now becoming highly polluted with industrial waste such as the Bedog River in YogYakarta, which is poisoned by waste from the batik industry; Bedadung River in East Java, which is damaged by electroplating waste; and Mahakam River in East Kalimantan, which had its waters declared undrinkable due to being severely contaminated with coal mining waste. The list goes on, given the huge number of rivers polluted in Indonesia.
The fast growth of illegal gold mining is the second factor in the high levels of pollution. Currently local elites in Indonesian villages are being struck by gold fever. They are racing to accumulate wealth by extracting the gold contained in the bottom of nearby rivers using destructive machines such as suction machines and even excavators. This extraction method not only deteriorates river ecosystems but also turn rivers turbid, muddy, and brown-colored. The catastrophic situation does not bother the local elites, at all as their consciences seem to have been killed by their own greed. They turn a blind eye to the suffering of the people living along the river banks, who can no longer use their rivers for cleaning and consumption. The elites’ courage increases each day as their mining operations are often backed up by “insiders” (oknum), or someone from the local police station who provides regular updates on police raid schedules. Consequently, when the police come to the mining sites to stop illegal activity they find nothing except mercury-contaminated rivers.
Deforestation also contributes to the degrading water quality in many Indonesian rivers. Indonesia’s deforestation is occurring at a phenomenal rate; in 2008 the Southeast Asian nation was awarded the Guinness Book of World Records title for the country with the highest rate of forest destruction in the world. Deforestation undoubtedly has had a significant detrimental impact on water quality as clean water comes from pristine forests. A study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2003 revealed that there is “a clear link between forests and the quality of water coming out of a catchment.” With the number of trees being cut down to pave the way for plantation and mining corporations increasing each year, it makes sense that the majority of river water in Indonesia is not consumable. It also sheds light on why the Batanghari River in my hometown has been experiencing a significant decrease in its water quality, as the thick rainforest surrounding the protected area of the Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park is now just a bedtime tale.
The massive river pollution in Indonesia certainly needs special attention from both national and regional governments. The root causes behind the damage to the rivers should be removed immediately. Household waste must be well managed so as not to end up in the river any more. Society should be educated about the importance of the river for the environment as well as for future generations. And strict rules regarding environmental sustainability must be seriously upheld against companies or factories that still dump their waste into rivers.
Indonesia must also offer a win-win solution for illegal gold mining. The local elites employ a quite large number of villagers who also desire a better life, especially after years of undue financial hardship due to the dramatic drop in rubber prices. These workers do not have any options for feeding their families or sending their children to school except to take part in the exploitation of the river. To get them out of this destructive activity, the government can open up jobs for them, give them educations in modern agriculture and entrepreneurship, and provide them with low-interest capital loans so that they can start their own businesses.
Although the Batanghari River is no longer as pretty as it once was, although its water is not as clean as the Seine’s, it remains my old friend. My optimism for it – and the other polluted rivers in every corner of Indonesia — remains. I still hope that the Batanghari River and its Indonesian counterparts will have their clarity and cleanliness given back to them. Together we can make Indonesian rivers great again.
Muhammad Beni Saputra is an Indonesian writer as well as a lecturer at the State Islamic University Sulthan Thaha Saifudin Jambi, Indonesia.