December 26, 2008

Bramantyo Prijosusilo

Amid this global financial turmoil, the Asian Development Bank announced in December it is providing a $500 million loan to the Indonesian government to clean up the legendary Citarum River. The Citarum runs long and deep in the nation’s subconscious as it was the main economic artery of one of the first historic kingdoms in the country: the ancient Tarumanegara.

Over the last few decades, the longest river in West Java has become one of the world’s most polluted waterways. The loan package will be delivered over the next 15 years and aims to improve the lives of up to 10 million people. So should we be happy about it?

A few days before the Manila-based lender announced its intentions, the People’s Alliance for Citarum, or ARUM, backed by a petition from 170 NGOs from Indonesia and overseas, demanded the ADB withdraw its funds from the Citarum River project. ARUM had been monitoring and studying the proposed project and was alarmed when the ADB disregarded its criticisms, even though in many aspects it ran against ADB’s own guidelines.

The problem ARUM has with the Citarum project relates to the lack of transparency and participation in the project’s planning and proposed implementation. As things stand now, ARUM is concerned that displaced people will not be adequately compensated and because there is no transparency, the project will end up being a haven of corruption on a local, national and international level.

So far, the ADB has not listened to ARUM’s concerns at all. Therefore they are continuing their struggle through advocacy inside Indonesia and overseas, to raise the awareness of all the stakeholders of the Citarum project, to demand transparency and participation in all stages of the project. There are several fishy details floating around among those interested in the Citarum.

For instance, there is the story that the Indonesian government only asked for $50 million for the west Citarum canal project that would secure Jakarta’s clean water needs. If this story is true, why does the ADB want to lend 10 times more? ARUM also found that several signatures in a technical assistance document submitted by ADB’s hired consultants appeared to be written by the same hand. ADB did not respond in any way to ARUM when it voiced its concerns, and silence fuels speculation and suspicion that there is monkey business going on.

How did the Citarum River get so polluted in the first place? There could be various reasons but up among the most important ones would be corruption and lack of transparency and communication. Besides corruption and the absence of transparency is the lack of communication and cooperation between government departments and the different levels of government. All this happens because of our inadequate laws. In the case that we have adequate laws, poor law enforcement makes a mockery of the regulations.

We have areas designated for industries and areas where industries should not be built, but in practice, these rules mean nothing. We have laws that are designed to protect the environment from industrial waste, but the laws can be bent if you have money. Households and cities can use rivers as garbage dumps and no one cares. No wonder in the short time since the 1980s that saw the rise of industries in West Java, we have destroyed the most important river in West Java. Now, instead of fishing in the Citarum, scavengers collect used water bottles and recyclable trash.

Some eight years ago, an environmental organization established a forum aimed at bringing together communities to alleviate the Citarum’s plight. They had planned reforestation and educational programs, but these have obviously been less than successful. At the time of the launching of the forum, the director of the state-owned electricity company called to attention the alarming rate of pollution from households and factories along the river. Pollution in Citarum affects the turbines at three dams Saguling, Cirata and Jatiluhur that provide electricity for much of western Java. As the river is choked, experts predict its volume will shrink and eventually the turbines would stop spinning. Java’s western part will experience serious power shortages.

Recently, the governor of West Java announced a plan to dredge the Citarum flowing through the Bandung district as an attempt to fight the annual flooding of the Dayeuhkolot and the Majalaya districts. The last dredging was conducted two years ago, he said, while admitting dredging is only a temporary solution to the flooding. The governor said that for a comprehensive and sustainable solution, there needs to be reforestation upriver. Again this statement indicates the lack of cooperation between different levels of government and between different departments.

It is impossible to describe all the woes faced by Citarum in just a few words, but it is clear that it is folly for the ADB to lend us $500 million if it is going to be wasted. Without transparency and participation from the beginning through to the future management of the rejuvenated river, sustainable ecology and social and economic welfare is a dream that will never happen. In fact, from the information in the public domain, it looks like corruption is already going on in the highest levels, and more is planned in the future.

Bramantyo Prijosusilo is a writer based in Jakarta .