Toxic water: A river slowly poisoned by pollution

Toxic water: A river slowly poisoned by pollution

Toxic water A river slowly poisoned by pollution
Toxic water A river slowly poisoned by pollution

Indonesia's Citarum river – one of the world’s most polluted waterways – is teeming with debris and chemical waste. Now, the army has been called in to clean its black and putrid waters. Joe Wallen reports from Java. Pictures by Jack Taylor.

This article has an estimated read time of seven minutes

When 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.

Enjang is not the only one to be hit by the disease: his nephew died from it last year while a neighbour is receiving treatment at the same hospital.

There are no official figures on cancer rates in the area but local scientists and doctors both suspect that the cases are linked to the Citarum River, often dubbed the world’s most polluted waterway.

Teacher and farmer Enjang, 56, has stage three colorectal cancer

Dr Mahendra Satria Utama, a radiation oncologist at Santosa Hospital in the state capital of Bandung, estimates 60 per cent of the cancer patients he sees come from settlements that depend on the Citarum for drinking, bathing, crop irrigation and washing clothes.

“There must be a correlation, the pollution is so bad and it is altering people’s genetics and causing cancer,” said Dr Utama.

To anyone walking along the banks of the river, the doctor’s suspicions would not come as a surprise. The river is stagnant, black and putrid, its flow choked by everything from plastic bags to human faeces, glass bottles and animal carcasses.

But as well as these obvious signs of pollution the Citarum is also teeming with more hidden – but equally deadly – industrial pollutants, a testament to the manufacturing boom in the West Java region.

Dr Marhendra Satria Utama says many of his cancer patients are from Citarum settlements

Dili Juanda's skin rashes which he believes are caused by washing with polluted water

Teti Sulasti, who lives on the Citarum, has developed scaly, inflamed blisters on her feet

According to the government the industrial zones on the outskirts of Bandung now make up more than 14 per cent of the entire archipelago nation’s economy, with annual exports worth about $12 billion and the sector employing more than two million people.

Approximately 2,000 factories, around half of which produce fabric that will end up on the British high street, line the banks of the river. They pump out an estimated 340,000 tonnes of toxic wastewater daily, according to the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime and Fisheries.

Under Indonesian law, they can dump wastewater into the river as long as its pH falls between six and nine and concentration of heavy metals doesn’t exceed government safe levels.

However, according to Indonesian government figures, only 20 per cent of factories on the Citarum actually treat their wastewater and the remainder ignores the law.

The Citarum is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world

Those who live along the 280km-long river have little choice but to rely on it

On top of the industrial waste, an estimated 20,000 tonnes of domestic rubbish are tipped into the river each day. And chemical fertilisers used in the 400,000 hectares of paddy fields bordering the river also drain into the water.

Professor Sunardi Sudianto, an expert on environmental pollutants at Bandung University, carried out the last comprehensive independent testing in 2015.

He found water flowing through one village had over double the safe limit for lead and triple that for cadmium. “[Heavy metals] give different effects, the common causes are cancer, slow growth, reproductive disorders and liver and kidney damage,” he said.

The World Health Organization says long-term exposure to heavy metals can lead to a wide range of conditions, including cancer, bone damage and neurological disorders.

Boys from Jelegong village watch as waste water flows from a textile factory into the river

The 15 million people who live along the 280km-long river know it is extraordinarily polluted but have little choice but to rely on it for their livelihoods.

As well as factory workers, there are millions of farmers and fishermen and the food they harvest is not just consumed locally but exported across the country.

Teti Sulasti lives with her five children in a house in Majalaya village on the banks of the Citarum. As a young girl she swam in its clear waters but the river has changed dramatically since then.

A Chinese-owned textile factory stands less than 50 metres from her home, belching acrid smoke into the air and pumping a brown liquid into the bubbling waters below. Teti stopped drinking the water several years ago after suffering regular bouts of sickness but still uses it to wash her family’s clothes.

Farm land surrounding the Citarum river has been destroyed after polluted water seeped into the irrigation channels

Her feet and lower legs are covered in scaly, inflamed blisters which her doctor says are a reaction to caustic soda in the textile factory’s wastewater.

“Before we could use the water for bathing, washing and cooking. Now when I use it, I just get itchy,” she says. “If I had the money I would move far away from here.”

Residents in the villages of Jelegong and Papanggungan complain their water has turned purple and since the construction of a giant textile factory upstream in 1993 their crops have died out.

Before 1993, Ade Traguna from Papanggungan village says he could earn around four million rupiah (£218) annually but now relies on his children to pay for food and medical bills. “The whole village has lost its land like this, of course it has stunted our development,” he says.

A textile worker at the Evergreen factory, which manufactures polyester fabric next to the river

Villagers have staged several protests to raise awareness of their plight but say the local government has done nothing in response.

“Factories throw away their waste water without treatment which causes huge damage to paddy fields and often results in failed harvesting,” says Meiki W. Pandong from Friends of the Earth in Indonesia.

“The worst impact is that many farmers are forced to change their livelihoods as they can no longer continue farming.”

Fishermen are also being forced to hang up their nets, who have supported their families for generations along the Citarum.

Environmental activist Deni Riswandani tests the PH level of waste water flowing from a textile factory into a tributary of the Citarum

Water pumped directly from the Citarum (left) alongside a glass which has been through a simple filtration process

“I’m so sad because the fish is getting less and less over the last five years,” says Ahmad Suherman from Cihampelas village.

“I’m angry at the people who created the pollution but I cannot do anything because I am a nobody. I am really struggling now.”

Professor Sunardi’s research found that more than half of the 26 species of fish in the Citarum in the 1980s have died out.

Like thousands of other former fishermen Ahmad now supports his family by hunting a much less-appetising catch: he rents a canoe and collects rubbish from the Sangguling Dam Reservoir.

It’s dangerous work – men are known to fall in and drown – whilst handling the rubbish and breathing in fumes given off by the toxins in the water causes sickness.

Plastic scavenger Rudiana says everyone who works on the water suffers with respiratory problems

“I suffer from regular coughs working on the water, [everyone] has respiratory problems,” says Rudiana, a scavenger.

“Typhoid and tuberculosis are both common, I had typhoid before. I worry if it gets much worse, I won’t be able to keep working but there are no other jobs here now.”

Rudiana sells the spoils of his back-breaking work to a middle-man for a mere 1.5 million rupiah (£81) a month, barely above Indonesian minimum wage.

But now, after sustained pressure from NGOs including Greenpeace, the Indonesian government is making the first tentative steps to revive the dying river.

In February 2018, it unveiled a seven-year clean-up programme known as Citarum Harum. The river was divided into 23 sections and the military drafted in to drive change.

A man bags up plastic waste collected from the river for recycling

Plastic bottles will be recycled to manufacture filters for factories' waste water

Colonel Kav Purwadi gives a tour of Sector 7 of the Citarum, which he is tasked with cleaning

“I will change the mindset of people who don’t care about the environment now, we will educate them but we cannot do it fast,” explains Colonel Kav Purwadi, in charge of clean-up in one section.

It’s a tough gig – he has to strike a balance between eradicating industrial and household waste while maintaining the industry on which so many West Javans depend. 

Col. Purwadi conducts several impromptu river patrols a week – often at night – and gives factories three warnings before shutting them down.

In 2018, Col Purwadi and his six men closed 25 ‘repeat offender’ factories but with 102 in his sector and just six people to oversee them it means many go long periods without being visited. And new factories are opening all the time.

However, progress does appear to be being made, albeit slowly. Pollution monitoring systems will be installed in every factory early next year and Col Purwadi and his men are beginning to clear up the river.

The source of the Citarum River in Cisanti, on the slopes of Mount Wayang

They have built three state-of-the-art recycling facilities to divert domestic waste from the river and plan to build 14 more, so every village in his sector has one.

Plastic nets have been strung across the river to capture solid waste and 7,000 trees have been planted to shore up the riverbanks and stop sediment falling into the river.

Tragically, for Enjang and many others these positive steps are all too late. He, like so many millions of others, has used the increasingly poisonous water all his life to irrigate his crops and farm fish, as well as for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing clothes.

“In my village if the river dies then the village would die, we depend entirely on it,” Enjang says. “I would tell you please, please don’t drink from the river. But, I still see so many people using it for their daily needs.”

  • Additional reporting by Machally Amrin

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