Pollution of Citarum River

March 20, 2023, 11:41 a.m.

Rotten river: life on one of the world’s most polluted waterways.

Citarum River in West Java province is dubbed one of the dirtiest river in the world, and cleaning it up is an almost unmanageable job. The government has to deal with more than 3000 businesses along the riverbank, with a large portion of them being multinationals. That excludes the tens of millions of households depending on water from the river.

Indonesia’s Citarum is relied upon by millions, but decades of pollution have choked it with chemicals and rubbish.

The smell is the first thing that hits you on the banks of the Citarum River in West Java, Indonesia. The odour is dense: rubbish rotting in hot sun mixed in with an acrid tone of chemical waste.

Every day, no less than 20,000 tons of waste and 340,000 tons of wastewater, mostly from 2,000 textile factories, are disposed directly into the once clear and pristine waterways of the Citarum River. No wonder the fish are largely gone in the third-biggest river in Java.

Some 9 million people live in close contact with the river, where levels of faecal coliform bacteria are more than 5,000 times mandatory limits. In spite of how dirty the river is, at least 30 million people across West Java rely on the Citarum to irrigate the farmland that feeds them.

Lead levels are more than 1,000 times the US Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard and levels of other heavy metals such as aluminium, iron and manganese are above the international average.

Mountains of river sediments are pulled on the banks of the Citarum. Thousands live on these wastelands. Unemployed young people, families displaced by the frequent floods, or so-called ‘scavengers’, the very poor waste collectors who survive by selling recyclable rubbish.

Many people suffer from dermatitis, contact rashes, intestinal problems; but also from delays in child development, renal failure, chronic bronchitis and a significant incidence of tumours.

People and their animals also ingest contaminants through their food.

Despite the filth, fishing is still widely practised along the river. The catch, contaminated with heavy metals and microplastics, is sold and eaten as much in areas adjacent to the river as on the tables of Jakarta. The number of fish species in the Citarum has decreased by 95% since 2008.

According to local activists, despite the bans, many factories continue to discharge waste via concealed pipes. Even if discovered, bribes to the right people ensure they remain.

To illustrate how dirty the Citarum River is, at some places we cannot even see the water. Its surface is completely covered by the unimaginable amount of waste, trash, and dead animals floating on it. If we are lucky enough to glimpse the water, we will see it is colored due to the excessive amount of toxic chemicals being dumped into the river by industries.

Every day along the Citarum people are still being poisoned by the dioxins and hydrocarbons in the air from coal-fired textile factories and by the water of a river that was once considered a paradise.

Do you consider river pollution to be a problem that concerns everyone, and how do you think the situation should be solved?

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