Living With Dirty Water

Heavy pollution of river water by household and industrial waste in the Indonesian province of West Java is threatening the health of at least five million people living on the riverbanks, say government officials and water experts.

Poor sanitation and hygiene cause 50,000 deaths annually in Indonesia, with untreated sewage resulting in over six million tons of human waste being released into inland water bodies, according to an ongoing study by the World Bank.

Ibu Sutria, 53, lives in a wooden shack on the banks of West Java’s Krukut River, which runs approximately 20km south from the capital, Jakarta, to the city of Depok. “Sometimes the river is clean, sometimes it’s dirty,” she said. Sutria suffers from regular bouts of stomach ache and diarrhoea, and says the river is constantly flooded.

“People use the river for a toilet and children play in it because they have nowhere else to swim.” She and others in her community use nearby ground water to wash themselves because they think it is cleaner than river water.

Pak Jumari, 35, is a leader of a community group living along the Ciliwung River, which runs north for 97km from the West Java city of Bogor. Since 2010 he has been using a boat to keep his own section of the Ciliwung clean by scooping out rubbish. “We find many detergents and soaps in the river, “he said. “We no longer use it for washing or drinking.”

Fishermen on the Ciliwung use “blast fishing” – bombs made of kerosene and fertilizer to kill fish so they are easier to catch – which has worsened pollution. Nevertheless, his community still fishes in the river, with few reported ill effects, he said.

Reasons for pollution

The Deputy Minister of the Indonesian Environment Ministry, Hendri Bastaman, told IRIN that pollution in West Java’s rivers is worsening, particularly in the Ciliwung and Citarum, where five million people live along the riverbanks.

“Much of the waste is dumped into rivers from households,” said Bastaman. “People are using these rivers as personal toilets. We’ve also found mercury in river water, which we suspect is coming from companies or those running small-scale mining activities close to the rivers.”

Health risks

Muhammad Rez Sahib, advocacy coordinator of KRuHA, a Jakarta-based coalition of more than 30 Indonesian NGOs focusing on safe water access, said none of the capital’s rivers could be viewed as safe for human use.

“Even the water suppliers in Jakarta don’t use the water here because it is so polluted,” he said. “Instead, they use water from the Citarum River, which is also heavily polluted. Even after this water is treated it’s still unsafe to drink.” The Citarum flows north from Bandung, the capital of West Java, for approximately 300km to the Java Sea.

Safe water alternatives for poor communities are “few and far between” Sahib noted. “Many will turn to use ground water, but due to a poor sewage system and open defecation, 90 percent of ground water in Jakarta is contaminated by E.coli bacteria. Many infant deaths are caused by this bacteria – E.coli is the main threat to human life from these rivers.”

Edward Carwardine, spokesperson for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Indonesia, noted that in West Java the use of “improved water” – obtained from taps, boreholes, covered wells and springs – falls below the national average, with only half of the population (approximately 20 million) able to access it.

“When families don’t have access to improved water sources, disease is much more likely,” said Carwardine. “Nearly a quarter of all deaths amongst children under five in Indonesia are caused by diarrhoeal disease.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nationwide more than 20,000 children in this age group die every year from diarrhoea.

Dengue fever and malaria, both spread by mosquitoes that thrive in stagnant water, account for an additional 3 percent of overall child deaths, according to Carwardine, who said more focus is needed to end the widespread practice of defecating in the open.

The Environment Ministry’s Bastaman said the government is using educational campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of unsafe water and to end defecation in rivers.

“For the Ciliwung we have a 10-year plan to restore the river’s health,” said Bastaman. “But for the Citarum, it’s impossible to get it back to the way it was prior to being polluted. The pollution is just too much.”

Learn More