Indonesia to clean up the most polluted river in the world

Indonesia is involving 7,000 people to clean up the Citarum River in West Java. The water from what is currently the most polluted river in the world should be drinkable again in seven years’ time, according to Indonesian president Joko Widodo. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo aspires to make the water from one of Indonesia’s most important rivers drinkable by 2025. (Image credit: MangAndri Kasep via Flickr)

It’s not all that easy to identify the Citarum as a river. Plastic bottles and other rubbish float on its surface, while beneath churns a brown liquid mass of wastewater, excrement, heavy metals and chemicals. The latter come from the dozens of textile factories lining the riverbank that flush their toxic wastewater into the Citarum.

Samples taken from the environmental organization Greenpeace revealed a toxic mix of hazardous chemicals, including nonylphenols, antimony and tributyl phosphate.

Nearly 300 tonnes of hazardous waste a day

In 2013, two non-profit organizations – the Blacksmith Institute in New York and Green Cross from Switzerland – rated the river as the most polluted in the world after a study showed that textile producers dump some 280 tonnes of toxic waste into the river each day.

But the Citarum wasn’t always a toxic dump site. Back in the 1970s, the river in tropical West Java was even considered a paradise – until an economic boom brought more and more people to the region and thus rapidly accelerated environmental pollution.

Meanwhile, well over 20 million people are now dependent on the river. Many of them use the water for rice cultivation, for example, though it has long since been a toxic broth. Local media reports that 60 per cent of the river’s fish are already dead.

Thousands of helping hands

All this should come to an end now that the Indonesian government is moving full steam ahead with its ambitious plan to clean up the river: 7,000 people have been brought on board for this massive project, with assistance from the army and local communities.

In addition to removing rubbish, local residents will plant 1,000 trees to reforest the shoreline. Waste yards and recycling centres will be established at 22 stations along the river.

‘Our land and water’

At 300 kilometres in length, the river, which starts near the metropolis of Bandung and flows into the sea east of the country’s capital Jakarta, is the third-longest on the island of Java.

Tisna Sanjaya, an Indonesian artist and activist, once described the Citarum as the “cradle of our nation’s culture”. After all, water has a special place in Indonesia culture, and the expression for ‘home’ in the Bahasa language is “Tanah Air Kita”, which translates to “our land and water”. Little wonder given that Indonesia is made of up more than 17,000 islands.

Drinking water in just seven years

Back in 2009, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) granted Indonesia a $500 million loan and launched a 15-year rehabilitation plan for the river. But the plan was delayed time and again until President Joko Widodo made cleaning up the Citarum a priority in December. He even visited the river in February to see the on-going rehabilitation efforts.

“The Citarum River, which was once clear, is now the most polluted,” Widodo said on Twitter after his visit. “We are trying to clean it as quickly as possible and hopefully in seven years’ time it can be a source of drinking water.”

Discussion at the national level

Gary Bencheghib travelled on the river with his brother in canoes made of plastic bottles in August 2017 to draw attention to the unsustainable conditions. The environmental activist and founder of the organization Make a Change World recently said in a video message that he is proud of Indonesia and how it is now fighting the pollution epidemic.

By taking the step to clean up the Citarum, Indonesia has “started a discussion on pollution at the national level”, he said.


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