Chemical pollution, siltation and agriculture waste have made West Java’s longest river one of the world’s dirtiest. Those working on its banks say efforts are being made to clean it up. But will they turn the tide?

The giant, colourful welcome sign at Cisanti Lake in Kertasari District, Bandung Regency, is rather a strange sight amidst the green scenery of pine and eucalyptus trees. Each letter of the alphabet is painted a striking colour: pink, green, yellow, orange and light blue.

“Kilometre 0 Citarum,” it reads.

Cisanti is a five-hectare lake that sits 1,500 metres above sea level surrounded by dense forest on a misty mountain range overlooked by the volcanic Mount Wayang. It is an oasis of serenity located just 60 kilometres south of Bandung—the bustling fourth-largest city in Indonesia—or around a three-hour drive uphill through narrow and meandering roads between landslide-prone slopes full of plantations growing coffee, potato, Welsh onion, carrot and lettuce.

The lake is rather small compared to the more-famous Lake Toba in North Sumatra or Lake Kelimutu in East Nusa Tenggara. But, as the welcome sign suggests, Cisanti has played an important role as the headwater source of the Citarum River—the third-longest river in Java—for centuries.

The 279-kilometre-long Citarum River is said to provide around 80% of the water supply for people in West Java and some parts of Greater Jakarta. Some 20 million people depend on the river, according to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS). It is also one of the sources for three hydroelectric power plants that generate thousands of megawatts of electricity for Java and Bali.

But decades of human and industrial activity along the river have polluted the waterway so badly with toxic chemicals and household and agricultural waste that it has earned the title of one of the world’s dirtiest rivers. To avoid international embarrassment and amidst public pressure, the current Indonesian administration under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo created the Citarum Harum task force involving the Siliwangi Regional Military Command in February 2018 to clean up the river. Jokowi’s ambition at that time was to make the water from the Citarum drinkable within seven years.

The task force is divided into 22 sectors across Bandung Regency. Each sector is led by a commander supported by around 40 infantry personnel. They are tasked with cleaning up waste and patrolling the river, and have the right to seal off factory pipes found to be dumping sewage into the waterway.

Cisanti is the home of sector 1 of the Citarum Harum task force. A few steps from the Cisanti entrance gate, there is a four-by-five-metre post guarded by five or six military personnel.

Rizaldi, a short, stocky 23-year-old petty officer with a jarhead haircut from the West Java Siliwangi Regional Military Command (Kodam) Raider infantry battalion, stands in his army uniform in front of the post with a picket of soldiers. A well-known pantura disco dangdut song is blasting from speakers inside the post. The musical genre was popular in the late 1990s among truck drivers on Java’s northern coast highway, or Pantura.

“You should have seen what Cisanti looked like before we got here. It was as if no one had ever touched it. That was two years ago,” Rizaldi says as he walks toward a banner strung across bamboo sticks on the left side of the entrance gate.

It is a striking banner. Maybe four metres tall. It shows a series of reproduced images depicting the progression of the Cisanti clean-up efforts. The first image shows several soldiers removing common water hyacinth—a type of invasive aquatic plant—from the water. A blue excavator is seen in the background.

Rizaldi points to a picture at the bottom right of the banner of Jokowi standing on a small wooden dock and staring at the lake in his signature rolled-up white shirt and black Oxford trousers. He is surrounded by high-ranking military officers and government officials.

Rizaldi, who originally comes from Ambon, Maluku Province, smiles and says, “This was when the president visited and inspected the clean-up project,” his voice filled with pride. “He released baby fish here. And look, now they are everywhere. But don’t even think about fishing around here. We will punish you by making you do push-ups.”

Despite the soldier’s warning, no regulations state that fishing on the lake is illegal.

When the sector 1 task force arrived at Cisanti Lake in March 2018, the body of water was covered with water hyacinth, while the soil was full of thatch consisting of dead leaves, moss and grass, Rizaldi recalls. The first effort to clean up the 1.5-metre-deep lake involved removing all the invasive plants. By hand.

“We had to get into that cold water and use our bare hands to remove them for about a month. The backhoe was only used to dig the sediment,” Rizaldi tells New Naratif, while showing the scaly skin on both his hands due to long-term sun and cold-water exposure. “We managed to remove 400 kilograms of common water hyacinth on the first day.”

Cisanti Lake is the point at which seven different springs from the surrounding mountain range form the Citarum River basin that flows all the way to the Java Sea. As part of the sector 1 routine, all the on-duty soldiers are tasked with patrolling and inspecting the springs, they say.

One of the springs, which is also named Citarum, is located at the north side of the lake. Legend has it that the Citarum Spring was the place where the semi-mythical king of the Hindu Sunda Empire, Prabu Siliwangi, was last seen before he disappeared and is believed to have achieved moksha (enlightenment in Hinduism).

There is a small building under the forest canopy used by travellers, especially pilgrims, as a place to rest by the spring. The tomb of the famous 17th century Sunda nobleman, Dipati Ukur, is located at the other end. Rizaldi says that the site attracts spiritual pilgrims from across West Java who spend days there praying or meditating.

The 40-centimetre-deep spring is reminiscent of a pond with vivid, crystal clear water. A huge dead tree trunk lays flat at the bottom while some tilapias swim by, uninterrupted by human presence. Beneath a black rock, the water naturally—and magically—flows upward from earth’s aquifer.

“There’s no pollution here,” Rizaldi says while gazing into the spring. “It never runs dry, even in the dry season. If you go just a few hundred metres down the street, that’s where the pollution starts.”

A horrific flash flood

There are three small sluice gates at the lake built by state-owned water regulator Perum Jasa Tirta II that control the flow of water. The main sluice gate in the centre channels the water straight into the Citarum River while two others are used for dairy and vegetable farming, the main commodities of the district.

Just 100 metres away from Cisanti Lake, between modest housing complexes, cowsheds are fairly easy to find. According to the West Java Statistics Agency 2018 report, there were 614 beef cattle and 2,883 dairy cows in Kertasari District. In fact, the district is one of the most important dairy farming hubs in the area, with more cows than any other district in Bandung Regency.

There are over 2,800 cow farmers in Bandung Regency, producing 2.5 million kilograms of milk per month and supplying almost 24% of national dairy product demand,behind East Java that produces more than 50% of national demand.

The thousands of hectares of farms create a vast green and brown scenery, akin to an ancient Roman mosaic. But for years, cattle farming and cultivation have been seen both as a blessing and a curse. A local farmer named Ramdani Surya says that the land can give prosperity to residents but that it can also turn violently against them.

At exactly 5:30pm on 6 December 2019, a horrific flash flood occurred following a torrential downpour in Cibereum Village, displacing 179 people and destroying four motor vehicles while leaving a 30-centimetre-high bank of thick brown mud on the main road. No victims were reported.

It was not the first disaster of its kind. In April of the same year, a landslide destroyed and blocked the main road for months in the same village.

“It happened all of a sudden and so fast,” recalls Surya, who grows potatoes and tomatoes. “I didn’t have any time to prepare, so I was just stunned looking at the stream of murky water. I was so scared.”

“Every time the wet season hits the land we are on alert,” Surya adds. “But we can do nothing.”

Kertasari District head Dadang Hermawan, who visited the flood-affected area, told local reporters that it was not the first flash flood that occurred in his district. Hermawan blamed plantations for not implementing a terrace system of planting.

“The flood occurred because there are no trees to tackle flooding,” Hermawan said, according to “All of the slopes have turned into private plantations.”

Bandung Regent Dadang M. Naser went as far as blaming “greedy farmers” for being the ones responsible for the disaster, saying that the government has acquired a total of 10.5 hectares of land from the farmers in the district to create a mountain belt consisting of formations of trees, but that the government could not afford to prevent disasters if the local community would not work with it.

“The disasters have been troublesome for the government because of the way the residents cultivate the land,” Naser said. “[Disasters] can happen every year. Don’t be greedy, just leave a few metres of land to be used as a mountain belt to plant trees.”

Heavy sedimentation 

For centuries, terraced planting systems have been used to decrease erosion or surface runoff, especially when there is an excessive build-up of rain water. But these systems are useless if there are no trees to support the land.

Surya, the farmer, knows this very well, having been taught farming by his father. But the desire to increase the supply of agricultural products for profit simply overrides the necessity to grow trees.

“More demand means we need more land to grow vegetables,” Surya says.

The way farmers cultivate their land is a matter of tradition, he continues. His grandfather did the same, even perhaps his great-great-grandfather. “All we know is just how to grow vegetables,” Surya says. “But he did not teach me how to grow trees.”

The loose soil created as a result of land clearance for farming does not just trigger landslides and flash floods, but can also send millions of cubic metres of mud sedimentation cascading into the river basin during the wet season.

According to the state-owned forestry company, Perum Perhutani, there were 28,000 hectares of forest around Cisanti Lake in 2000. Two decades later, there are less than 5,000 hectares of forest due to land-use changes. Due to erosion, an estimated 7.9 million tons of sedimentation falls into the river every year, according to the Citarum River Basin Management Agency (BBWS Citarum).

Consequently, mud sedimentation or siltation impacts the water quality and the lifespan of the water reservoir.

journal article published by the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) states that heavy sedimentation would shorten the lifespan—typically a century—and diminish the function of three water reservoirs of the Citarum, namely Saguling, Cirata and Jatiluhur. Both Saguling and Cirata were built in the 1980s, while Jatiluhur was built in 1967 and serves as the main water source for the surrounding areas, all the way to Jakarta.

“High sedimentation will decrease the water capacity inside the reservoir,” the study reads. “So the lifetime of the reservoir will decrease over time [more] than its initial design.”

According to the journal, the lifespan of a reservoir should normally be around 100 years. As of 2016, however, the Saguling reservoir that was first opened in 1985 was predicted to reach its maximum lifespan within 27 years, leaving it set to be “retired” some 40 years early.

Deni Riswandani, an environmental activist with Element of the Environment (Elingan), says that Kertasari District contributes the largest amount of sediment to the Citarum River, which will eventually narrow the width of the river.

“In some parts of the basin, the width is only 10 metres wide,” Riswandani says. “The sedimentation has absolutely serious impacts.”

Constant flooding has been reported in several districts in Bandung Regency due to river siltation and domestic waste build-up, such as in Majalaya, Dayeuhkolot and Rancaekek districts. Furthermore, sedimentation generates turbid water that makes it far more undrinkable, Riswandani adds.

“Chemical pollution, domestic waste, siltation, they explain why Citarum is a complex problem,” he says.

Economically speaking, digging up river sedimentation is an expensive effort. The government, through the Public Works and Housing Ministry, spends around IDR 1 trillion (US$67.3 million) every year to dig up Citarum’s sediment using excavators, according to a Tempo magazine analysis.

Communal cowsheds and agriculture waste

The government and environmental activists believe that the pollution in the Citarum River basin occurred upstream to downstream.

While years of land clearance and plantation development have caused the river to suffer, the agricultural activities around the Citarum’s basin have their own impacts too. For decades, cow manure and the heavy use of pesticides have been a source of pollution upstream.

Over the years, hundreds of cowsheds were scattered behind housing complexes in Kertasari District, something that the government decided was detrimental to the environment. In early 2018, the Bandung Agriculture Agency established a communal cowshed, which the government thought would be more efficient and environmentally friendly.

“This [improperly disposed of cow dung] will contribute to environmental damage,” agency head Tisna Umaran told local online media outlet Ayo Bandung in 2019. “If each farmer sets up his own shed, we can’t monitor how or where they dump the cow manure.”

To accommodate the growing cattle population, Umaran said the district needs at least five more shared sheds. But to date, the district still has only one, and the cowshed policy’s implementation is far from what was originally planned.

The communal cowshed is located on a 1,000-square-metre plot of land that can accommodate around 200 cattle. It looks abandoned and is actually made up of around 10 decrepit sheds of various sizes.

The grass looks like someone did not bother to mow it. In the front yard there are two large pools to collect water contaminated by manure during the farming process. The pools are both dry and empty. There are several other smaller pools that are meant to contain cow manure to be processed as biogas. They are dry and empty too.

One farmer named Diding, who is attending to his four cattle inside the shed, says that farmers never use the biogas pools because the work involved is too time-consuming and involves too many steps, such as collecting the manure and mixing it with other chemicals.

“We only used it several times; after that no one was willing to do it,” Diding says. “We just don’t have time.”

Instead, the farmers just drain the water used to clean the cattle directly into a nearby creek or agricultural fields. Water that contains manure runs dark greenish. Cow manure may seep through the earth’s layers and contaminate the groundwater.

Cow manure is also processed as land fertiliser that is sold to farmers.

A 2017 study conducted in a dairy farming village in Boyolali, Central Java, by researchers from the Faculty of Geography at the Surakarta Muhammadiyah University using chemical oxygen demand parameters showed that the groundwater had been contaminated with manure between twice and eight times the quality standard level.

Separated by a narrow street in front of the communal shed lies a Welsh onion and coffee plantation belonging to Dani Ramdani. A pile of fertiliser sacks sits on the side of the road. Ramdani says that he does not mind the contaminated water from the nearby cattle shed. In fact, the greenish water runs through his plantation.

“I don’t think the contaminated water causes problems,” Ramdani adds. “I let it flow through the field and never had any crop failure because of it.”

Luckmi Purwandari, director of the Environment Ministry’s Water Pollution Control and Environmental Destruction Directorate, however, tells New Naratif that the government has identified agricultural waste as “the source of pollution upstream.”

In response, Purwandari says the ministry started building a 1,000-square-metre communal cattle shed in September 2020 that can accommodate 235 cows with a waste capacity of 25 square metres.

“The communal cowshed will have cow manure containment, a biogas and fertiliser-making facility, as well as an earthworm-farming facility to make biomedicine,” she says. Earthworm extract is widely available to Indonesians for purchase on the internet, and is believed to have the ability to treat typhoid fever and enhance stamina. While it is regulated by the government, its benefits have not been scientifically proven.

Purwandari adds that the project costs around IDR 1 billion (some US$68,000) and should be up-and-running in late 2020. In 2019, she says, the ministry built a settling pond to process pesticide and fertiliser residue before it could contaminate the groundwater and the river.

“Pesticide and fertiliser residue have also become an environmental concern, so we built [a pond] and so far it’s fully functional,” she says.

To avoid the facilities being left unused, the ministry has cooperated with residents and local authorities. “Before we build, we always have dialogue with the residents, not just to socialise the program, but also to hear what they need,” Purwandari tells New Naratif. The outputs of the facility, such as fertiliser and biogas, have “economical value, so it will benefit the residents while reducing pollution”, she adds.

Irresponsible dairy farming also raises concern over methane and carbon dioxide emissions. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), total emissions from global livestock amounted to 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year, representing 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions generated from human activities.

Methane can be useful as a biogas if handled properly. Otherwise, it may be harmful to the environment. The average ruminant produces 250 to 500 litres of methane a day. Globally, livestock supply chains also produce 3.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, according to the FAO.

‘You can’t just blame us’ 

But then again, farmers are just small cogs inside a complex economic machine of national supply and demand.

Ramdani, the onion and coffee farmer, says that not all farmers own their land. Some of them rent the land that they cultivate from companies, such as state plantation operator PT Perkebunan Nusantara and state forestry operator Perum Perhutani.

“We are not rich farmers,” Ramdani says. “The price of vegetables fluctuate every season, so how are we supposed to give up land to plant trees when we can’t even reach our target? You can’t just blame us for all the disasters.”

While the fundamental problems that plague the Citarum upstream can easily be identified, such as pollution and rampant, irresponsible agriculture, finding solutions might not be that easy, says Meiki W. Paendong, executive director of the West Java chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi). But blaming the farmers exclusively will not solve the problems.

“You can’t look at Citarum partially. You have to see the bigger picture, from the upstream to the downstream,” Paendong tells New Naratif. “Then you can see that we have to work on the upstream first.”

“Are the farmers provided with proper infrastructure, such as processing facilities, animal husbandry or manure storage, and provided training about responsible farming and the environment? I don’t think they are,” Paendong says.

“So we have to work on this together.”

This story is Part One of a two-part series examining pollution in Indonesia’s Citarum River and was originally published on New Naratif on 15 October 2020 and was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

About the writer

Adi Renaldi is a Jakarta-based freelance multimedia journalist. He has contributed to the Washington Post, Rest of World, Nikkei Asia, the Jakarta Post, NPR, China Dialogue, Mongabay, Coconuts Jakarta,...

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