A man collects rubbish from the Citarum river in Indonesia © SIPA USA/PA Images
A man collects rubbish from the Citarum river in Indonesia © SIPA USA/PA Images

Welcome to the world's most polluted river

2 May 2018

Suratmo doesn’t catch fish in Indonesia’s Citarum river anymore – he fishes for rubbish. Glass bottles, animal carcasses, cans and broken toys are a regular part of his catch as he tries to eke a living from the world’s most polluted river.

Every day, 20,000 tons of waste and 340,000 tons of wastewater, mainly from 2,000 textile factories, are dumped into the Citarum, the third largest river on the island of Java, home to 141m Indonesians.

Suratmo is just one of 28m people, including residents in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, who depend on the river for water, electricity, agriculture and their livelihoods.

Given that the river contains 1,000 times as much lead as permitted by US regulations, it is hardly surprising that many locals, who bathe and wash their clothes in it, suffer from skin diseases. Many of the rice fields irrigated by the Citarum have disappeared. The river water is so bad it even corrodes the turbine coolers at the Saguling hydroelectric power plant.

Citarum is a potent symbol of Indonesia’s struggle to reconcile two often-conflicting imperatives – creating jobs and protecting the environment. The controversy over deforestation by some palm oil suppliers is never far from the headlines. The country’s paper industry, though pledging to clean up its act, is still under intense scrutiny.

Yet the government does seem, finally, to be taking the Citarum’s catastrophic decline seriously. As part of Operation Sweetwater, a seven-year plan, supported by the IMF and $500m from the Asian Development Bank, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has sent 7,000 soldiers in to help clear up 300km of the Citarum.

Widodo probably felt compelled to act because the Citarum supplies 80% of Jakarta’s water supply. The capital is growing so rapidly – and with it the city’s demand for drinkable water – that Greenpeace has warned of a looming water crisis.

Operation Sweetwater is a gargantuan task. There is so much waste in the Citarum that sometimes you can’t see the water and, when you can, it sometimes contains so many chemicals that it bubbles. To reforest the land in the immediate vicinity of the river will require 100m shrubs and 25m hardwood plants.

The publicly expressed goal is to make the Citarum’s water safe to drink by 2025. Given various studies have suggested it is too dirty to even treat for drinking, that is an ambitious target.

Yet the success – or failure – of this operation is more likely to be determined by politicians than soldiers. The question is: will Widodo’s government seal off dumping holes and remove business permits from companies that flout the rules?

The authorities are making most of the right noises. The campaign is being spearheaded by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and deputy minister Arif Havas Oegroseno says offenders are being warned, forced to pay for clean-up operations and will, if necessary, be shut down. He told Reuters that textile companies “throw dyed water into the rivers that flow into the Citarum. The branch rivers – sometimes they’re white, sometimes they’re black, red, blue or yellow.”

In May 2017, Greenpeace and some community organisations finally won a court battle to revoke the permits of rogue factories on the outskirts of Bandung, plants which they said had caused $831m of damage to the environment. Government agencies, it transpired, had been issuing annual water permits without evaluating a factory’s environmental impact. The agencies concerned blamed a lack of manpower – which they say is now being rectified.

Pollution on this scale is a drain on the Indonesian economy. Yet textile exports are worth around $11.9bn a year to Indonesia and the sector employs around 1.34m people, more than any other manufacturing industry. That gives it a lot of clout.

The industry also faces severe competition from China, which has invested heavily in the latest machinery. You can see the impact if you travel to Majalaya, less than 50km from the source of the Citarum. Once a dynamic textile hub known as ‘dollar city’, Majalaya is now so sleepy it has acquired a new nickname: ‘horse and cart city’.

The hope, encapsulated in Widodo’s recently announced economic vision, Indonesia 4.0, is that the country’s GDP can grow fast enough – ideally at around 6-7% a year, currently it is expanding by around 5% – to make it easier to raise sustainability standards and enforce tougher environmental regulations.

The litmus test for Widodo’s vision – and Operation Sweetwater – is whether, by 2025, Suratmo will be able to catch fish in the Citarum – and not garbage.

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