Photo: Esther De Jong/IRIN

Articles of clothing fished out of the Citarum River drying along its banks. Experts describe the river as one of the dirtiest in the world

BOJONGBUAH, 23 June 2009 (IRIN) – The River Citarum in Indonesia’s populous Java Island is one of the world’s most polluted rivers but plans to clean it up are controversial.

By the time the 270km river, with its source in West Java, has passed some 2,000 factories and reached the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi, it is highly polluted, though many residents use water from it to wash their dishes and clothes, and even to cook food. Some 80 percent of Jakarta’s surface water comes from the river.

In December 2008, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) granted a US$500 million loan to the government for clean-up operations. Over a 15-year period, the ADB money should allow the government to rehabilitate the entire river basin.

The plan supports sanitation projects and seeks to provide safe water to those along its banks, while at the same time improving the lives of some 28 million people in its vicinity.

However, the People’s Alliance for Citarum (ARUM), an NGO, is concerned about corruption in the allocation of the ABD funding, and the project’s effectiveness.

It said there was a lack of “monitorable, reportable and verifiable indicators to combat and prevent corrupt practices”.

Indonesia regularly ranks as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. According to Transparency International’s 2009 Global Corruption Barometer, Indonesia is perceived as the most graft-ridden country in Asia, and its parliament the most corrupt public institution, followed by the judiciary and the police.

Oversight measures

But according to ADB spokesman Chris Morris, “fear” of possible corruption should not hold up projects that will ultimately improve the lives of many.

A series of oversight measures “will also reduce the risk of corruption”, Morris said, citing community-based approaches, clear and transparent information systems and external monitoring.

Sunardhi Yogantara, director of Citizens Care for the Environment, agrees, saying concerns about corruption should not overshadow the urgent need to act now. “If nothing gets done, the river will die and that would be a catastrophe.” Yogantara started a clean-up in his village some 15 years ago. Slowly other villages along the river followed his example and his NGO was formed.

Compensation, relocation

Diana Gultom of Debtwatch Indonesia, a member of the ARUM coalition, is worried about the “absence” of a compensation and relocation plan for some area residents.

The ADB wants to relocate close to 900 households, but final sites have yet to be agreed.

“The number of affected people is underestimated and the site proposed for resettling displaced people is unclear and problematic. They don’t know what they are going to face, they will lose their livelihoods,” Gultom said.

Health concerns

Yogantara also highlighted the health risks of living near the river, especially in the dry season.

“In the dry season the river becomes an open sewer. Without water from the hills, the smell is so toxic it makes people faint.”

Setiawan Wangsaatmaja, who has conducted research into health conditions near the river, said: “Especially during the rainy season we found a lot of cases of skin disease, diarrhoea and acute respiratory problems.”

Meanwhile, the very source of the river’s demise – pollution – has become a source of income for thousands of others, posing yet another challenge to the clean-up plan.

Edi Jundedi, a 56-year-old grandfather who sells plastic bottles fished from the river for 13 US cents a kilo, had never heard of the ADB scheme, but was not worried about his future. “The river is so dirty I don’t believe it will ever be clean again. I will always be able to find plastic,” he said.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Environment, (IRIN) Health & Nutrition