With dozens of bright green rice paddies, flocks of kites in the sky and children laughing nearby, at first glance the village of Sukamaju in western Java has all the charms of rural Indonesia.
However, the idyllic setting is spoiled by a strong stench rising from the Citarum River that flows in the distance, thick with mounds of garbage and plastic bags dumped on its banks.
This immense aquatic garbage dump winds 297km across the island of Java, cutting through the sprawling Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
Labelled “the most-polluted in the world” by a local commission of government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) charged with its clean-up, the river is the only source of water for 15 million Indonesians who live on its banks, despite the risks to health and crops.
In the village of Sukamaju, not far from the bustling West Java capital of Bandung, a well at a small village square serves as a public shower.
Without any other water source in the village, it is connected directly to the canal.
Noor, a villager in her 40s, has had white patches on her arms for the past six months.
“When I first started itching, it was always after washing here. It’s because of the contaminated water in the river. It’s the factories’ fault,” she said. “I don’t know what this disease is, but I don’t have any money to see a doctor.”
The Bandung Basin is the historic center of Indonesia’s textile industry, where 1,500 factories in the region dump about 280 tonnes of toxic waste each day into the Citarum.
In the irrigation canals of Sukamaju, between the rice paddies, the water for crops that runs through the fields is a puzzling deep red verging on black.
“This is because of the dyes from the factories. The color changes every two hours [depending on dyes being washed out], and that has a direct impact on the quality of the rice,” Deni Riswandani said as he dissected a young sprig.
“There are no more grains in the pods. Production has been reduced 50 percent from the normal harvest,” said Riswandani, who is trying to bring farmers together to lobby for financial compensation.
At the edge of the plantation stands a massive gray building equipped with several chimneys and surrounded by barbed wire. On the coast, a valve connected to the factory dumps toxic residue at regular intervals right by the rice paddies.
“Normally, factories can’t dispose waste into the water without treating it,” Riswandani said. “In theory, there are very heavy penalties for doing this, but the government pretends there are regular checks, but on the ground nothing changes.”
“We practice intensive control, and I think that gradually the factories will comply with the rules, but perhaps not every day,” said Windya Wardhani, head of the West Java provincial environment bureau.
“There are heavy metals in the Citarum’s water and sediment, probably because of the factories, since you don’t find heavy metals in rubbish,” she said.
She said the river contained mercury, lead, zinc and chrome, which have been linked to cancer, organ damage and even death, affecting babies and children more severely.
Mercury and lead can cause joint disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and diseases of the kidneys, circulatory system and nervous system, studies have shown.
Residents have sought compensation for their damaged rice crops, while the health effects of the river have gone unaddressed, with no data yet gathered to measure the extent of the problem.