The Citarum River and the pollution in indonesia

The Citarum River and the pollution in indonesia

The Citarum is the largest river in the West Java region of Indonesia. Twenty-five million people live within its basin, often relying on the Citarum as their only source of water. With limited resources for water purification, many people are forced to consume, bathe, and wash their clothes in water containing shocking levels of pollutants. However, unlike our previous case study, the pollutants posing health risks to these communities do not come from one unique source. Instead, the Ciatrum is ridden with multiple types of pollutants from a variety of culprits. 


The water irrigating into villages along the Citarum is laden with human and animal fecal matter. The river is used as a natural sewage system and West Java’s Environment Department estimates that 35.5 tonnes of human waste is dumped into the river each day alongside 65 tonnes of livestock waste. In 2013, the Asian Development Bank recorded that levels of faecal coliform bacteria were present in Citarum water samples at 5,000 times the safe exposure limits. This outstanding presence of bacteria has led to the Citarum becoming a vector for disease for the millions of people who consume its water. Faecal coliform bacteria can lead to ear infections, dysentery, typhoid fever, gastroenteritis, and hepatitis A. Doctors along the Citarum also see increased incidence of impetigo, dermatitis, and scabies.


Whilst bacterial contamination poses a serious threat to the health of the locals along the Citarum, the primary source of pollution is the 1,900 industries located along the river. The textile industry is king in Indonesia and many of the factories along the Ciatrum specialise in dying textiles, often for wealthy Western companies. Of these 1,900 industries, it is believed that 90% do not possess adequate waste treatment facilities. Therefore, 34,000 tonnes of untreated textile runoff is disposed of into the river each year. This runoff often contains high concentrations of toxic heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, iron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, and manganese.

The chemical runoff from textile factories often gives bold, unnatural colours to the Citarum water. Photo: Documentary RiverBlue.

The lead levels in the Citarum have been reported to be 1,000 times the US Environmental Protection Agency standard for drinking water. Lead is known to cause a variety of health problems if an individual is overexposed through drinking water or contaminated food. These health effects include anemia, kidney damage, heart disease, brain damage, reduced fertility, memory problems, and miscarriage. Lead has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and the placenta, giving it the ability to affect neurological processes and development. The health effects associated with other heavy metals found in the Citarum can be found in the table below: 

Household waste, including degradable and non-biodegradable rubbish, is often stored around the banks of the Citarum. These trash piles often grow too large for the banks to contain and spill over into the river, further polluting the water with physical waste. The poorest individuals along the Citarum often scavenge for plastics — selling recyclable bottles and packaging in exchange for groceries, mobile phone credit, or discounts on their energy payments thanks to waste segregation banks. When the rubbish from the villages is not disposed of around the Citarum, it is burned in large fires. The toxins in these fumes have caused often fatal increases in tuberculosis and bronchitis among locals. 


Agriculture is also both a culprit and a victim of pollution along the Citarum. In the upstream villages along the river, many families grow and sell vegetables as an occupation. Some farmers apply plentiful amounts of pesticide to maximise the yields of their crops, but often dismiss safety regulations and apply these chemicals in quantities far above the recommended safety limit. Excess pesticides have been known to leech into the Ciatrum, further polluting the waters with chemicals unfit to consume. Further downstream where the river is polluted with additional toxins, the Citarum’s waters irrigate into thousands of hectares of paddy fields. Rice is therefore grown in polluted waters, lacing the crop with chemicals that are consumed by families whose diets largely consist of this locally grown rice. 


However, there is hope for the Ciatrum following the launch of operation Citarum Harum in 2018. This project, run by the Indonesian military, intends to revitalise the river and make Citarum water safe to drink by 2025. This multidisciplinary project combines military efforts with expert knowledge, formulating plans for reforestation, toxin extraction, wastewater discharge regulation, and environmental education. Waste segregation banks increase in scale and popularity whilst soldiers clear the Citarum by installing rubbish and water treatment facilities. With backing from the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it is hoped that drastic improvements are seen along the Citarum in the coming years, which will have the capacity to improve the health and livelihoods of millions of people.