The Citarum River, which winds its way through West Java past terraced rice paddies and teeming cities, is an assault on the senses. Visitors can smell the river before they see it.
Some fishermen still make their living off the river’s fouled waters, but many are no longer casting lures. Instead, they row their boats through floating garbage, foraging for old tires and other trash they can sell.
The river, considered by many environmentalists to be among the world’s most polluted, is woven tightly into the lives of the West Javanese.
It provides 80 percent of household water for Jakarta’s 14 million people, irrigates farms that supply 5 percent of Indonesia’s rice, and is a source of water for more than 2,000 factories, which are responsible for a fifth of the country’s industrial output, Asian Development Bank figures show.
Villagers living along its banks use the Citarum’s dangerous waters to wash their clothes — and themselves.
Almost everyone sees the river as something of a dump: a convenient receptacle for factories’ chemical-laced effluent, farms’ pesticide-filled runoff and human waste.
As a result, in stretches of the river near Jakarta, fish have been almost wiped out, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.
“I know the color of the river is not right,” said Sutri, the owner of a small restaurant in Bekasi, an industrial suburb of Jakarta. “But I don’t know anything about dangerous chemicals. Anyway, there is nowhere else for me to get water.”
Sutri said she washed the restaurant’s dishes in the river, along with her clothes and her children.
Environmentalists blame rapid, and unregulated, industrialization and urbanization over the past 20 years for the degradation of the 8,050km2 river basin.
The environmental damage is already costing lives. Flooding, caused by deforestation and drains clogged with garbage, is a constant problem in cities along the Citarum.
The list of woes is worrying enough that the development bank committed this month to provide Indonesia with a US$500 million, multiyear loan to finance a wide-ranging cleanup and rehabilitation plan devised by the bank and the government.
The money would be used to clean the Citarum and the West Tarum Canal, which connects it to Jakarta, and to create a long-term plan for how to best use the river. A portion of the loan would go toward setting up an independent organization that would become the steward of the Citarum.
But even before the bank has begun to dole out the loan, it faces opposition from local civic groups. They fear that the government is taking on too much debt and that there are inadequate protections to ensure that the poor see enough benefits and that the money is not lost to the corruption that is endemic in Indonesia.
“We are worried that the money could be lost through corruption,” said Nugraha, 30, a community activist who has been working to clean up this Jakarta suburb since he graduated from high school.
“And we are worried the farmers will be left out,” he said. “The focus seems to be on the people of Jakarta, not the local people here.”
That the battle lines are being drawn so early, and despite the obvious need for change, is not surprising.
“Water wars” in the US and elsewhere can be nasty affairs.
Like most such battles, the fight over the Citarum will revolve around the complex issues of equity, economic development and environmental protection. Coming up with a plan that satisfies everyone’s needs will be difficult.