Standing on the bank on one of Jakarta’s many rivers, the experience is much the same across the board. Nothing you would hope for in a river is present in the city’s 13 main canals. Clear water, the peaceful babble, trees and native flora lining the bed, native wildlife in and around the water and children paddling amongst the leaves have all been replaced by rubbish, disease-causing bacteria and pollution. Standing on the edge of any of Jakarta’s canals is saddening; what once would have been a beautiful and serene place, is now a bed of pollution and the cause of illnesses such as typhoid, dysentery, cholera, E.coli-poisoning and amoebiasis. So what has caused the rivers to become so polluted, and the water so unusable? We have.
Many factors lead to water pollution of this extent, one of the main ones being sewage. The water canals in Jakarta are largely used to flush human sewage, increasing the level of E.coli in the water, thus making it unfit for human consumption.The nitrates and phosphates found in sewage, and in fertilizers, also lead to an over-stimulation in the growth of aquatic plants such as algae. An excess of algae clogs up the waterways, uses up dissolved oxygen as it decomposes, and blocks light to deeper waters. This in turn is very harmful to aquatic organisms such as fish, as it inhibits their respiratory ability. Another factor contributing to water pollution is the large amount of rubbish and waste deposited into the river by inhabitants of the riverside. All of the above are known as municipal pollution, pollution caused by homes and commercial establishments.
Add to those factors industrial pollution. Large amounts of industrial waste are deposited into the river system every day, allowing hazardous substances to flow freely in our precious water. Garbage river: Two workers comb through garbage in the Ciliwung River. The piles of garbage found in the river contribute to the city’s annual flood problem. JP/P.J. Leo. Last, but not least, agriculture plays a significant role in polluting rivers. The erosion caused by crops devastates the river systems, and is the leading cause of water pollution in countries such as the US. Chandra Samekto, a project officer for the Citarum River, says the problems are widespread and caused by many different factors. “For the Citarum River especially, the problem is quite serious. This river is integral to Jakarta’s water supply and is a very strategic source to all of West Java.”
One of the main tasks of the Citarum project is to identify why the condition of the river is degrading, and what can be done to improve the situation. “We have spent a lot of time researching and identifying the problems in the Citarum River, and have discovered that each segment has a different problem. For example, upstream, the problems are caused by industry. Adjacent to the river is a coal treatment plant, and the waste from materials used to treat the coal is dumped into the river. In the middle section of the river however, the main problem has to do with people’s sanitation habits. They dump waste and garbage, which is detrimental to the water quality.” When asked whether the situation has improved recently, Samekto says the results are not promising. “We definitely think the situation is getting worse.” He adds it is very important we address the problem, and put more effort into improving the quality of the rivers, and in turn, the water quality in Indonesia, as the quality of the water could be a limiting factor to Indonesia’s economic development.
Double work: A woman washes clothes while taking care of her child on a wooden pontoon along the Ciliwung River. JP/P.J. Leo. “It is important that we as a society recognize the problem, and realize it is worsening, as perhaps this way people will make an effort to improve it.” The Citarum River project has up to 80 plans in motion to improve the river, with an estimated cost of Rp 45 trillion (US$4.8 billion). Plans include new water treatment facilities, water site management strategies, upstream conditioning and septic tanks. Also included in their plans is System Rice Intensification (SRI), a program aimed at using less water when cultivating rice crops, for the same or better yield of crop. In conjunction with these plans, it is important people do their bit in caring for their rivers and water canals.
“People do care,” says Samekto. “But they need to collaborate with us, and replicate our actions. We hope to get support from everyone, and become a movement of sorts. If everyone knows the issues involved, if people realize the problem, we can help them change their behavior, and change [the behavior of] companies. “The only way to do this is by creating awareness, by educating people. For example, a simple step to take is to stop littering in the rivers, dispose of your rubbish carefully,” he says.
The message is simple, and is known the world over, yet it seems somehow more difficult in practice.
“Yes, it is easy to see, but it will take more time to change people’s behavior.”