Cleaning up the Citarum River in West Java

Trying to Stop Pollution From Killing a Lifeline
Peter Gelling, New York Times 13 Dec 08;

BEKASI, Indonesia — The Citarum River, which winds its way through West Java past terraced rice paddies and teeming cities, is an assault on the senses. Visitors can smell the river before they see it.

Some fishermen still make their living off the river’s fouled waters, but many are no longer casting lures. Instead, they row their boats through floating garbage, foraging for old tires and other trash they can sell.

The river, considered by many environmentalists to be among the world’s most polluted, is woven tightly into the lives of the West Javanese.

It provides 80 percent of household water for Jakarta’s 14 million people, irrigates farms that supply 5 percent of Indonesia’s rice and is a source of water for more than 2,000 factories, which are responsible for a fifth of the country’s industrial output, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Villagers living along its banks use the Citarum’s dangerous waters to wash their clothes — and themselves.

Almost everyone sees the river as something of a movable dump: a convenient receptacle for factories’ chemical-laced effluent, farms’ pesticide-filled runoff, and human waste.

As a result, in stretches of the river near Jakarta, fish have been almost wiped out, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.

“I know the color of the river is not right,” said Sutri, the owner of a small restaurant in Bekasi, an industrial suburb of Jakarta. “But I don’t know anything about dangerous chemicals. Anyway, there is nowhere else for me to get water.”

Sutri — who like many Indonesians uses only one name — said she washed the restaurant’s dishes in the river, along with her clothes and her children.

Environmentalists blame rapid, and unregulated, industrialization and urbanization over the past 20 years for the degradation of the 5,000-square-mile river basin.

The environmental damage is already costing lives; flooding, caused by deforestation and drains clogged with garbage, is a constant problem in cities along the Citarum.

The list of woes is worrying enough that the development bank committed this month to provide Indonesia with a $500 million, multiyear loan to finance a wide-ranging cleanup and rehabilitation plan devised by the bank and the government.

The money would be used clean the Citarum and the West Tarum Canal, which connects it to Jakarta, and to create a long-term plan for how to best use the river. A portion of the loan would go toward setting up an independent organization that would become the steward of the Citarum.

But even before the bank has begun to dole out the loan, it has opposition from local civic groups. They fear that the government is taking on too much debt and that there are inadequate protections to ensure that the poor see enough benefits and that the money is not lost to the corruption that is endemic in Indonesia.

“We are worried that the money could be lost through corruption,” said Nugraha, 30, a community activist who has been working to clean up this Jakarta suburb since he graduated from high school.

“And we are worried the farmers will be left out,” he continued. “The focus seems to be on the people of Jakarta, not the local people here.”

That the battle lines are being drawn so early, and despite the obvious need for change, is not surprising. “Water wars” in the United States and elsewhere can be nasty affairs.

Like most such battles, the fight over the Citarum will revolve around the complex issues of equity, economic development and environmental protection. Coming up with a plan that satisfies everyone’s needs will be difficult.

Raising community activists’ concerns, the first $50 million of the Asian Development Bank’s loan is designated for cleaning up the canal that brings the river’s waters to Jakarta, and for additional treatment plants. Because of health concerns, residents of the city rarely drink out of the tap, opting instead for bottled water.

Christopher Morris, a water resources engineer with the development bank, says it is committed to financing projects over 15 years that will benefit all the river’s users. Not all of the projects can be done quickly, he said.

“We are taking a long-term approach while recognizing there are some things we can fix quickly,” Mr. Morris said. “But changing the behavior of the community takes a lot of careful planning and preparation.”

Among the goals: building waste treatment plants to clean household water for the Greater Jakarta area, creating more dams so that additional water will be available for growing communities like Bandung, Indonesia’s fourth largest city, and simply cleaning the river so people living near it, including fishermen, can again depend on the source of water.

The plan calls for reforesting stretches of the river basin to help erosion and landslides that clog the river and regularly cause floods in Bandung, in Bekasi and elsewhere.

The tricky part of the work will be getting the many people who rely on the river for their living, or simply to live, to agree to changes. Conflicts can arise over the allocation of water between farmers who use it for irrigation and city dwellers. And trying to get farmers to use more efficient irrigation methods, so there is more water for others, can be challenging.

The solution proposed by the Asian Development Bank and the Indonesian government is a “water council,” with half the representatives from government agencies and half from the communities involved and nongovernmental organizations.

What authority the council would have remains to be seen; different levels of government already disagree about water allocation.

Of particular concern to community activists is how this council might be manipulated, becoming yet another avenue for corrupt practices.

Mr. Morris said the bank had not been blind to the opportunities for the money to be misused. That, he said, is why the bank decided to parcel the loan out over many years.

“The point is to make the money available to the government in an efficient way, so they aren’t sitting with a loan and paying charges on it until they actually need to use it,” he said. “But it also allows us to put in some safeguards and implement our anticorruption policies and other policies the Asian Development Bank promotes.”

With loan, a chance to clean up polluted Indonesian river
Peter Gelling, International Herald Tribune 12 Dec 08;

BEKASI, Indonesia: During the height of the dry season here, a once raging river and the canal that leads it to Jakarta, supplying the city with 80 percent of its water, carry a thick layer of sludge, a flotilla of solid waste that former fishermen now use to forage for potentially valuable trash in their wooden boats.

Some environmentalists call the Citarum the most polluted river in the world.

"There is no scale really to determine which is the worst," said Christopher Morris, a water resources engineer with the Asian Development Bank. "But it is very nasty. To say you can't swim in it, I mean, you know when you are a few kilometers from it."

The Citarum is a mighty river. Its basin stretches 13,000 square kilometers, or 5,000 square miles, across West Java, supporting a population of more than 28 million people and more than 20 percent of the country's industrial output.

Three hydroelectric dams produce 1,400 megawatts, and the river irrigates 400,000 hectares, or one million acres, of farms that supply 5 percent of the country's rice.

But rapid, and unregulated, industrialization and urbanization over the last 20 years have reduced the river to a national embarrassment.

More than 2,000 factories are now situated along its banks, everything from steel to oil to garments is produced using the river as both a source of water and a dumping ground for waste. The hundreds of smokestacks here in Bekasi, an industrial suburb of Jakarta, could be mistaken for a forest consumed by fire.

The 70-kilometer, or 43-mile, canal passes through Bekasi on its way to Jakarta, and along its banks another industry has formed - prostitution. Young women sit outside small houses, or cafés, offering sex to the thousands of nearby factory workers.

Along this stretch lives a woman in her 40s who runs a small restaurant.

The restaurant sits atop a high slope, at the bottom of which meanders the river. In the distance, the fog of industry swirls.

"I know the color of the river is not right," Sutri says, adding that she washes the restaurant's dishes in the river, along with her clothes and occasionally her family. "But I don't know anything about dangerous chemicals. Anyway, there is nowhere else for me to get water."

She will be one of the first to benefit from a $500 million loan from the Asian Development Bank that aims to jump-start a government program to clean up the entire Citarum River and the West Tarum Canal that connects it to Jakarta. In all, the Indonesian government expects the cleanup to cost $3.5 billion and take 15 years.

The loan from the Asian Development Bank, approved last week, will be delivered in several phases over those 15 years, with the first $50 million to go toward revitalizing the all-important canal, securing Jakarta's main source of water. The entire loan package will fund a myriad of sanitation and environmental projects as well as the building of waste treatment plants.

"We are taking a long-term approach while recognizing there are some things we can fix quickly," Morris said. "But changing the behavior of the community takes a lot of careful planning and preparation."

The plan, however, has critics. A coalition of community advocacy groups, collectively called the People's Alliance for Citarum, have raised concerns over the amount of debt the country is taking on for a cleanup plan that, they say, has few safeguards from corruption. Indonesia is widely considered to be one of the world's more corrupt countries.

Also, more than 800 people, mostly banana growers, who live along the canal might have to relocate. The alliance says there is no clear plan for their relocation or to reimburse them for the loss of their livelihood.

"We are worried that the money could be lost through corruption," said Nugraha, 30, who has been working to clean up the Bekasi environment since he graduated high school. "And we are worried the farmers will be left out. The focus seems to be on the people of Jakarta, not the local people here."

Nugraha's comment touches on another potentially difficult issue down the line: management of the Citarum River Basin, which spans several provinces. Questions remain about the allocation of clean water across the provinces.

The solution proposed by the Asian Development Bank is a "water council," half of which would represent government agencies and the other half civil society. What authority the council would have remains to be seen, as different levels of government disagree. Of particular concern to the alliance is how this water council might be manipulated, creating yet another avenue for corrupt practices.

The bank will, for the first time in Indonesia, introduce a multitranche financing system to address this very problem, Morris said, disbursing portions of the loan over time as needed.

"The point is to make the money available to the government in an efficient way, so they aren't sitting with a loan and paying charges on it until they actually need to use it," he said. "But it also allows us to put in some safeguards and implement our anti-corruption policies and other policies the Asian Development Bank promotes."

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