The Citarum River is one of Indonesia’s most strategic waterways, supporting millions of people and providing water to the country’s capital, Jakarta.
But overuse and increasing industrial pollution over the last twenty years has severely damaged the river.
Winding its way through the hills above the Jakarta, the Citarum collects sediment from eroded land, and pollutants from villages and factories.
Floods are commonplace, and the livelihoods and health of those who live along the river are under threat.
For Asia Calling Elise Potaka visited communities living on its banks and filed this report.
Here in Cangkuang, one of 50 villages on the Citarum upstream, local Bousana points to a line on the outside brick wall of her house.
The line, which is well above her head, shows just how far water from the nearby Citarum River rises when it floods.
“If it rains all day the water will come up to here - this happened two months ago. It also flooded when there was a landslide. My house was destroyed and I had to move. Two neighbourhoods were affected here. Where should I move when it floods?”
The houses here are only ten metres or so from the river’s edge.
And there’s another obvious problem. Erosion caused by land-clearing upstream has caused sediment to build up in the river. Over years, the riverbed has risen, and now it doesn’t take much for water to surge over the banks.
Sunardhi Yogantara, from a local environmental group called Citizens Care for Environment, also lives by the Citarum.
“The colour is brownish, it means it brings with the water a lot of mud. It means there is a big problem with massive erosion upriver. That relates to the cultivation upland.”
According to the Asian Development Bank, the Citarum River supports a population of 28 million.
And this population is expanding, moving into areas along the river, clearing precious forestland and causing massive erosion.
“When people are thirsty of space to cultivate just for their subsistence, when they don’t have enough space there is no other way, they go into the catchment area, let’s say the forest. Then to start cultivating they need to have a good economical commodity, so they have to cut down the trees to allow enough sun’s rays to grow their cultivation.”
But sedimentation and flooding aren’t the only problems on the Citarum upstream.
Textile and electronics factories, as well as slaughterhouses have waterfront views, as does a massive coal-fire power station.
Canals filled with sluggish water from nearby city, Bandung, empty into the river. Plastic rubbish lines the banks.
Bousana’s neighbour, secretary of the village council, Nana, shakes his head and says it wasn’t always this way.
“The waters of the Citarum used to be very clear. Before you could throw a coin in and see it hit the bottom, but not anymore.”
As well as supporting people, the Citarum supports 20 percent of Indonesia’s industrial output.
Domestic waste like raw sewage and rubbish from households is mixed with industrial waste from factories.
Here on the upstream, there are around 1500 factories, and only 20 percent of these have a comprehensive waste-water management scheme.
Luisa Boer is the Director or Environmental Pollution Control at the West Java Environmental Management Agency. She says while domestic waste comes in bigger quantities, industrial pollutants cause the most harm.
“Industrial waste is more toxic since it contains metals and other substances. The lead and copper in industrial waste can’t be decomposed, whereas domestic waste is organic and can be more easily broken down.”
Lusia Boer says this waste poses a big threat to farms and fisheries along the river.
“Factories surrounding farming areas reduce the productivity of the land and they produce less crops. In the same way, fisheries are also affected - if there is less oxygen in the water, then the productivity of the fish will also be lower.”
Here in Bekasi, at the downstream end of the Citarum, it’s late afternoon.
A man is bathing in the water, talking to a woman who is washing her clothes. Across from them, a fisherman casts a net into the flow.
Ridwan Arifin is from El-Kail, an environmental NGO that has been working in the area.
“Forty percent of the people here fish in the Citarum but due to the condition of the river, they can only catch a small amount of broom fish and they can’t sell them.”
Ridwan Arifin also says pollution is affecting rice quality, and they have discouraged people from planting crops on the river banks.
But there is a lack of information about the hazards. Some farmers, like Nilan, still work the field’s just metres from the river’s edge.
“I’m scared to plant vegetables here, but it’s only for my own consumption - there’s not enough for me to sell. And besides, everyone else is doing it. They did prohibit us from planting here but there haven’t been any inspections.”
In recent years, there have been a number of plans aimed at cleaning up the Citarum.
These include attempts to straighten the river to improve water flows, and a flood mitigation scheme on the upper stretches.
But government and NGO experts agree that a more integrated whole-of-river approach is needed for to achieve any real improvement.
Next week on Asia Calling, we look at the work being done to clean up the Citarum, including a controversial new 500 million dollar loan approved by the Asian Development Bank for an integrated water management project.