Indonesia launches renewed attack on the world’s “most polluted” river

Indonesia has a waste problem – and its waterways are among the hardest-hit.

On Tuesday 11 June 2019, the regional government of West Java received funding from the World Bank amounting to USD 100 million (AUD 143.76 million), for cleaning up the Citarum River. Having gained a reputation for being the world’s most polluted river in 2013, the Citarum River receives a flow-on of 20,000 tons of waste and 340,000 tons of wastewater every day, mostly from textile factories, livestock manure and household waste. As Dikanaya Tarahita bitterly jokes, “no wonder the fish are largely gone in the third-biggest river in Java”.

The river supports the daily cooking, bathing and laundry activities of around 28 million people, as well as supplying Bandung and the nation’s capital of Jakarta with piped water. Along with this, the river sustains fish farms, fills reservoirs that generate about two gigawatts of hydropower, and irrigates 400,000 hectares of paddy fields – making the Citarum River one of Indonesia’s most important waterways.

For the communities who live along the rivers, there are concerns not just about the environmental impact of the river’s waste, but also about its effect on health; residents report skin and respiratory diseases, as well as developmental disorders in the children.

Governor of West Java, Ridwan Kamil, outlined that the World Bank funds would be used to build regional infrastructure for processing waste. He also emphasised the role of technology in building better waste management systems – hinting at plans to establish waste-to-energy conversion stations.

This is not the first time the regional government of West Java has attempted to clean up the Citarum River. In the early 2000s, they implemented a program focusing on pollution control and community empowerment in the area. Then, in 2013, the government set an ambitious target for the water of the Citarum River to be drinkable within 5 years.

Deputy Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Safri Burhanuddin acknowledges these past failed efforts, saying that in 2013 “each institution worked independently. What we need is for them to work together in order to reach a common goal”.

In 2018 Jokowi called for “mutual cooperation, [to] unite to clean the Citarum River” and make it drinkable by 2025. AIC researcher Dr Yuli Suharnoto from IPB analysed this challenge alongside case studies from around the world, highlighting that local residents’ involvement was a must. Indeed along the Citarum, community groups have paved the way forward writes former West Java administrator of environment NGO WAHLI, Dadan Hermawan.

There are many who are optimistic that the Citarum River will recover, even among those who live along the river and who have experienced the pollution firsthand. But progress is slow, and urban planner and writer Alwi Yusran asks, “how long do we have to wait? How long does the Citarum have to wait?”

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