In the 1960s, Indonesia’s Bandung experienced a textile boom that brought prosperity and jobs to the area. Today, locals complain of endemic pollution and health problems linked to unscrupulous factories dumping their waste in the city’s waterways.

If you come to Majalaya District, just 30 kilometres southeast of Bandung—the fourth-largest city in Indonesia—it is easy to tell why the district earned its glorious nickname “Dollar City” back in the 1960s during the textile boom.

Dilapidated factory buildings are scattered across the area, creating labyrinthine streets and alleys. Flue-gas stacks thrust toward the sky and thick, black smoke rises from factories housing coal-burning weaving machines.

Majalaya is a 25.36-square-kilometre district with a total population of about 169,000 as of 2017. There are two creeks that flow through the district—Cikakembang and Cikaro—before joining the Citarum River that splits Majalaya into two halves.

The textile industry in Majalaya mushroomed in the 1920s after the Dutch colonial government established the Bandung Textile Institute. Soon, traditional textile factories inside people’s homes began popping up in Majalaya. In the late 1930s, Chinese investors with sophisticated new technology entered the market, marking the end of traditional textile manufacturers who used shuttle looms and hand-dyed processes.

After independence in 1945, the newly established Indonesian government relied on the textile industry, among other sectors, to boost infrastructure development. Majalaya supplied 40 percent of the Indonesian textile market with products exported across Asia, according to political scientists Hans Antlov and Thommy Svensson in their book From Rural Home Weavers to Factory Labour: The Industrialization of Textile Manufacturing in Majalaya.

During the 1960s, the industry was valued at US$1.2 million and absorbed a 100,000 person-strong workforce from across the province.It was then that Majalaya earned its “Dollar City” epithet, at least until the fall of the New Order regime under President Suharto in the early 2000s.

During its heyday, there were nearly 13,000 weaving machines around West Java—a quarter of them located in Majalaya. Today, the textile industry in Bandung Regency is valued at US$5 million, absorbing more than 700,000 workers, with China, India and South Korea as the dominant investors.

Bleak images of reality

Titin Kartini and her husband knew the district’s reputation well, having learned from word-of-mouth testimony and stories from their neighbours about how easy it was to earn money in Majalaya. In 1972, the young family of three moved out of Kartini’s parents’ house in Garut, West Java and settled in Sukamaju Village in the hope of getting a slice of the textile industry cake.

“We had high hopes back then,” Kartini recalls about the decision to move to Majalaya. “My daughter was just around 2 years old. We came here with nothing but bags and a little money. But we managed to survive by working as labourers. Majalaya wasn’t what it looks like nowadays.”

Kartini, now 63 years old, worked as a textile dyer and operated the weaving machine, while her husband, who died of lung cancer in 2011, worked as a security guard. The two managed to build their own house on a 36-metre-square plot of land adjoined by rice paddy fields and a small irrigation channel in Kampung Ciwalengke, which is part of Sukamaju Village.

The long-time resident witnessed the fast development of Majalaya firsthand. Paddy fields soon disappeared, and were replaced by more textile factories.

“We could still bathe in the river back then,” says Kartini, whose house is located just a few metres from PT Sinar Baru Maju Jaya—one of the largest textile factories in the area. “But now the water gives you skin rashes.”

During the New Order regime, Suharto relaxed regulations to obtain company permits in order to lure more foreign investment to the regency. Environmental impact analyses were no longer necessary to obtain operational permits, meaning that a company was not responsible for managing its own wastewater. As a result, hundreds of companies would dump their waste straight into nearby rivers, particularly the Citarum.

In order to chase higher profits while minimising operational costs in a tight price war, many textile companies use coal to fire their machinery. Coal is one of the least expensive but the dirtiest form of fossil fuel that costs around US$50 per ton in the domestic market. The domestic demand for coal for textile manufacturing soared to 6.54 million tons in 2019 compared to 4 million tons the previous year, according to the Ministry of Industry.

Because installing a waste management system is expensive, with an operational cost of around IDR 300 million (US$20,000) per month in the present day, factories started to build secret underground pipes from the 1970s onwards to channel the sewage into nearby rivers.

Over the years, residents of Ciwalengke have witnessed the water in the rivers changing colour and occasionally even turning pitch black because of the dumped sewage. And they are choked by constant coal smog.

Health data obtained by New Naratif shows Majalaya had the highest number of recorded respiratory infections in 2019, compared to all other industrial districts in Bandung Regency.

Kartini says that the residents of Sukamaju held demonstrations in front of PT Sinar Baru Maju Jaya a few years back, protesting against its coal-burning activities and their impacts on residents’ health. But she claims that the company only paid IDR 15,000 (US$1) per family  every three months as compensation to calm residents.

Years of living surrounded by factories have taken its toll on Kartini’s family’s health.

“My health deteriorated,” says Kartini, who now lives alone. “I frequently have difficulty breathing at night. I have blisters around my feet and hands. My daughter works in Purwakarta with her husband, so no one looks after me.”

‘The pit of suffering’

Sukamaju is a 274-hectare village with a population of more than 19,000, according to government statistics.

Most of its inhabitants are low-wage labourers at nearby factories. The community of Kampung Ciwalengke has around 1,800 residents. Years of pollution from coal-burning activities and open-waste dumping have created bleak images of reality. Yet as the local government enjoys the flow of capital investment, most residents live in decrepit slum areas like Sukamaju, packed in between factory walls without access to clean water and proper sanitation.

Lin Herlina, who lives with her husband and four children next to Kartini, says that development has never progressed to their village since she relocated from Purwakarta, West Java in 1988.

“It’s always the same,” Herlina said“Nothing has changed.”

Herlina was hospitalised with a severe respiratory infection for a week in early 2019, which she describes as “a burning sensation inside the chest”. While she has not had any health problems since she worries about her family’s well-being.

Herlina calls Kampung Ciwalengke “the pit of suffering,” pointing out the residents’ economic stagnation and the local government’s reluctance to help them improve their livelihoods. Both Herlina and Kartini agree that so far the village has yet to receive long-lasting assistance and infrastructure improvements from the local government.

Village officials could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts.

There are no rubbish bins in Ciwalengke, and people throw household waste in front of their homes or directly into the river. Most houses do not have toilets or septic tanks, and most people still practice open defecation in the Cikaro Creek that runs into the Citarum River—about 50 metres from Ciwalengke.

In 2017, an NGO and the local administration built three communal toilets in Ciwalengke, but the absence of septic tanks means that the toilets are pointless. The waste is flushed out straight into the river. In February 2018, then-Siliwangi Regional Military Command donated a water tank and purifier for the residents to share. But it was another useless effort. The filter inside the tank must be replaced every few months, and no residents can afford such a filter.

“I think it is pointless to build something as long as the lifestyle and attitude of our residents are not changed,” Herlina explains. “You have to advocate for a healthy lifestyle first, before building something. If not then people would still defecate and throw waste openly.”

Access to clean water is available through the regional water operator PDAM, but most residents cannot afford to subscribe to the pipe water service, so they rely on water from the Citarum River that is collected into communal wells.

According to the Bandung Regency water operator, PT Tirta Raharja, only 24 percent of the total population signed up for the clean water service in 2019. The low participation percentage has something to do with the pipe water installation cost of IDR 1.1 million ($75), and the subscription, which costs IDR 50,000 (US$ 3) per 10 cubic metres of water.

Dadan Zaenuddin, a cleric in his mid-40s who has just finished building his new house in Ciwalangke, said that he needed to dig a 25-metre-deep well that cost him IDR 15 million ($1,000) in order to get clean water. The cost was too much for a religious leader like him, he says, but he had no choice.

There is only one communal 5-metre-deep well with murky and sticky water that smells like chemical substances, probably due to groundwater contamination from years of pollution. People around Ciwalengke still use the water from the river to bathe, clean cookware and wash clothes. For cooking and drinking, residents have to buy gallons of water that costs them around IDR 200,000 ($15) per month.

“But you can safely drink water from my well,” says Zaenuddin, while offering a glass which appears clear and clean. “If you dig deep enough, the water is still safe to drink.”

Grim numbers of health problems

There were 345 textile factories registered with the government across Bandung Regency, and Majalaya has more factories than any other district, numbering 141. In the past two years, tight market competition, a rising regional minimum wage and growing demand for cheaper imported textiles have forced around 180 factories to shut down their operations and relocate to other places in Central Java that have a lower regional minimum wage.

But even with more than half of the factories ceasing operations, health problems are still on the rise.

According to the data obtained by New Naratif from three health centres in Majalaya, as many as 22,207 cases of respiratory infections among children and adults were recorded throughout 2019. It was the highest number compared to other industrial districts in Bandung Regency, such as Dayeuhkolot, which had 19,654 cases and Rancaekek with 18,708 cases during the same period.

The head of Majalaya Health Center, Dadan Permana, said they have dubbed the most common diseases in the district the “10 Biggest Illnesses” in their health reports. The most common problems include respiratory infections, diarrhea, dermatitis and the common cold.

“If we look again there is always a correlation between human health and the environment. Environment plays an important role,” Permana explains“For years people around here have been heavily exposed to pollution. If we take a look at the numbers, you can tell that the residents here are running out of time if the government does not do something to fix the environmental problems.”

He added that a healthy lifestyle and clean environment are the biggest contributions toward the health and welfare of residents. “Health facilities only contributed around 20 percent to public health,” Permana says. “The rest would rely on the residents’ habits and how clean is the environment.”

According to a research study conducted by the School of Life Sciences and Technology at the Bandung Institute of Technology in 2018, two rivers in Majalaya District suffered from heavy pollution. The water quality index showed Cikaro River is polluted with a ranking between 4 and 5.99, whereas Citarum River showed an index score above 6, meaning it is heavily polluted. In order to be safe to drink, the water quality index should be 0.33 to 0.89.

A far cry from environmental victory

Prior to 2018, the Environment Ministry recorded that an average of approximately 18,000 kilograms of industrial waste from Bandung Regency was disposed of into the Citarum River per day, the highest among any other region along the river. The West Java Environmental Agency found chlorine and heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, iron and manganese among other toxic pollutants in the river.

Amid pressure from activists and media, the Joko Widodo administration created the Citarum Harum task force involving the Siliwangi Regional Military Command in February 2018 to clean up a river that was dubbed “the dirtiest river in the world” by the Asian Development Bank in 2008, shortly before they disbursed millions of dollars in loans to clean up the river basin. Widodo’s ambition at that time was to make the water from the Citarum River drinkable within seven years.

West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said in a press conference in February 2020 that within two years the Citarum Harum task force had managed to clean some 113,000 tons of domestic waste from the river. Out of 1,242 factories along the Citarum River in Bandung, the task force has sealed off the pipes of 462 factories that do not have their own waste management installations. Only 51 factories have been brought to trial over allegations of environmental destruction.

However, environmental activist and independent researcher Rizki Ersa Heryana, who has studied the enviro-socio-economic impact of the pollution, says that the task force deployment is not enough to solve the problems at the Citarum River, adding that the programme lacks initiatives to raise awareness among local communities.

While patrolling and sealing off the unregulated sewage pipes may have deterrent effects, Heryana doubts that the practice will have a long-lasting impact, adding that it is like playing a game of cat and mouse. He argues that some of the factories are located far from the Citarum River and tracking the underground pipes may be difficult.

“Some of the factories are only being reprimanded,” Heryana says. “How many of them are fined or brought to trial? Only a handful. So I don’t think that it’s successful enough [in decreasing the pollution level].”

“The problem at Citarum River is literally complex,” Heryana said“Most of those affected by pollution are the poor. But we can’t just blame them for throwing out their trash into the river. The question is, do they have proper access to dispose of household waste? They don’t.”

Most of the time, Heryana says, the government does not involve the public—especially the poor—in its schemes. With that said, he adds, the Citarum Harum programme does not address the problems of poverty that plague the urban poor communities. Heryana says that if the underlying problems are addressed by the government, grassroot initiatives will prevail.

“All [the government] said is ‘Don’t throw garbage into the river, it’s harmful’, but [the urban poor] don’t have any choice,” he says.

“First things first, give them access to proper sanitation and clean water, raise their awareness about a healthy lifestyle, then we can talk about cleaning up the river,” he adds. “If the Citarum Harum programme ends sooner or later, people will not have the ability to carry on protecting the environment.”

In August 2019, the Sector 4 task force sealed off the sewage pipe belonging to PT Sinar Baru Maju Jaya, which is located near Kampung Ciwalengke. The factory had been found disposing of sewage into Cikakembang creek. Using the chemical oxygen demand measurement, the task force found the contamination at 538 milligrams per litre—more than two times higher than the standard of 250 milligrams per litre.

But for Kampung Ciwalengke residents, it was far from an environmental victory. The water from Citarum River remains murky and the smell of burning coal still dominates the air.

“We just need fresh air and clean water,” says local resident Herlina. “Nothing more.”

“People here don’t seem to care anymore as long as they can eat. They’re just tired of fighting.”

This is Part Two of a two-part series examining pollution on Indonesia’s Citarum River and was originally published on New Naratif on 19 October 2020 and was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

About the writer

Adi Renaldi is a Jakarta-based multimedia journalist and currently an In-depth editor/journalist at Tirto.ID. Prior to this, he was a staff writer at VICE Indonesia for four years, where he produced long-form...

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