I Photographed the ‘World’s Dirtiest River’ For Eight Years. Here’s What I Saw.

The many chemicals polluting the river have penetrated groundwater wells and surrounding rice paddies, causing nearby residents to suffer rashes and lung inflammation.

by Iqbal Kusumadirezza; as told to Jade Poa; photos by Iqbal Kusumadirezza; translated by Jade Poa
16 September 2019, 9:29am

ALL PHOTOS BY IQBAL KUSUMADIREZZA. ABOVE PHOTO SHOWS A HEAVILY POLLUTED TRIBUTARY OF CITARUM IN BATUJAJAR, PHOTOGRAPHED IN 2019.

This article is part of a wider initiative by VICE looking at the state of the environment around the globe. In Asia-Pacific, each VICE office is examining the main concerns from their territory, in an effort to gauge the health of the planet as a whole and to highlight the widespread need for change. For other stories in this series, please check out Environmental Extremes.

Indonesia is home to many rivers, but Citarum is the one with the worst reputation. International media has dubbed the river that flows through West Java as the “world’s dirtiest.”

At 286 kilometers long, stretching from Mount Wayang in Bandung to the Java Sea, no other river in West Java rivals its length. Before it became so toxic, the river was essential to the livelihood of people living in the major cities of Jakarta, Bekasi, Karawang, Purwakarta, and Bandung. The river also supplied water to over 420 hectares of farmland. As the region became more industrialized, Citarum was hit hard, threatening the area’s only source of water.

As a photographer and Bogor native, I felt drawn to the river after noticing how it would flood yearly when I was in middle school, making the trash overflow. That image really stuck with me, so I decided to start a personal project in 2007 and began taking photos along various parts of the river. Revisiting Citarum and seeing it turn into a toxic cesspool affected me significantly. Although I initially intended to document the flooding, I realized the problem was much, much bigger, and thought that by documenting the river over an extended period, I could draw attention to the worsening changes the river experienced. I focused on the Bandung end of the river, where the textile industry first began to grow, and where the pollution began.

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Waste from a water treatment plant flowing into the Cikijing river, a tributary of Citarum in Rancaekek. Photographed in 2016.

Citarum’s downfall was mainly due to the growth of textile factories along the riverbank in the 1980s, when toxic liquid waste from the 300 factories began flowing into the river. Only around a fifth of the factories had proper waste management systems. I also noticed that the waste issue is a shared problem: without a proper waste management system, residents living along the river have clearly gotten into the habit of using the river as a household trash bin.

Many of the textile factories opened up shop along Citarum because the groundwater in the area was vast and the river provided a convenient dumping area. But the factories have over-extracted groundwater, and toxic chemicals from the river have seeped into underground wells. Additionally, the initial infrastructure of the area wasn’t prepared for the arrival of these factories; as jobs opened, people flocked to the riverside, where there was no trash management system to speak of. Coupled with the fact that clean running water doesn’t service the area, residents continued to rely on the river as both a source of water and a dumping zone.

The textile industry first arrived in the area in the late 1970s. Thanks to the factories, the area became known as “Dollar City” due to the high number of fabric orders from world-renowned clothing brands, including Yves Saint Laurent, GAP, The North Face, Wrangler, Pierre Cardin, and Calvin Klein. The jobs it created came at the environment’s expense - Majalaya became the biggest contributor to air and water pollution along the Citarum river.

To evade legal consequences and avoid the high cost of installing proper waste management systems, many companies built private pipelines to direct their waste into the river.

Citarum is arguably a portrait of how bad Indonesia’s water treatment systems are. According to data from Greenpeace Indonesia and Walhi (The Indonesian Forum for the Environment), Citarum water contains mercury, lead, chromium, zinc, copper, and sulphates, all of which are hazardous to living beings, especially in levels as high as Citarum’s.

Around 80 percent of the textile factories in the Majalaya area are located directly along the Citarum river bank or its tributaries. The many chemicals polluting the river have penetrated groundwater wells and surrounding rice paddies, causing nearby residents to suffer rashes and lung inflammation.

Indonesians living near the river are aware of how toxic the water is, but some of them continue to rely on it for household activities like bathing and washing clothes and dishes, as they have no alternative source of water. Occasionally, children even indulge in a swim.

In 2016, the Coalition Against Waste consisting of Greenpeace, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, the Bandung Legal Aid, and other environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Indonesian Ministry of Environment for three factories’ contribution to Citarum’s extreme toxicity. The coalition won, resulting in the cancellation of government decrees that legalize pollution, making toxic dumping by those three factories illegal. While this is a step in the right direction, it’s unclear whether the ruling has been effectively enforced.

West Java’s provincial government also asked the Ministry of Maritime Affairs to form a task force to restore the river, which included literally dumping live fish into the river to restore its almost nonexistent ecosystem.

President Joko Widodo has promised that Citarum will be fully restored within the next seven years. A year after making that pledge, Widodo made a point to showcase a segment of Citarum he claimed had finally been rid of its nasty stench. But my photos tell a different story: Majalaya and its surrounding areas haven’t changed much.

While textile factories are mainly responsible for Citarum’s chemical waste problem, residents of surrounding villages directly contribute to the river’s trash problem. When I asked locals if they had developed any means to counter the constant flow of trash into the river, or at least raise awareness, I found out that in 2015, environmentalists established “Citarum Day” to commemorate the lawsuit won by the Coalition Against Waste and encourage residents to take part in trash removal. The central government also initiated a program called Citarum Harum (Fragrant Citarum), which borrowed Rp2 trillion (US$142.2 million) from the World Bank in an effort to restore the river.

Still, mechanisms to deter residents from dumping household waste consist only of poorly enforced signs. Meanwhile, residents who have come up with ideas to prevent trash-dumping in the river say the government offered no support when they reached out. However, residents say their area isn’t serviced by a waste disposal service, forcing them to throw trash into the river or burn it.

I have pledged to continue documenting the river until the president meets his seven-year deadline. Here are the photos I’ve taken over the years:

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Trash on the Citarum riverside in Dayeuhkolot. Photographed in 2011.
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The Cikapundung riverbend (a Citarum tributary) in Tamansari, Bandung. Photographed in 2013.
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Rowing through the trash covering the surface of Citarum. Photographed in 2012.
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Smokestacks reflected in the Citarum river. Photographed in 2017
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A civilian rowboat crosses the river that appears to be 'split' by waste. Photographed in 2015.
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Children swimming in Cikijing, a tributary of Citarum. Photographed in 2016.

This article originally appeared on VICE ID.