Seyi Rhodes is a journalist who works for Channel 4. He has travelled extensively to far-flung parts of the world, highlighting stories that don’t usually get media attention. In 2014 he travelled to Indonesia for an Unreported World report on the The Citarum River, identified by environmental groups as the worlds dirtiest river.
The Worlds Most Polluted River
Herman and his son Alec are fishermen. They live in a small village by the Citarum river – not far from the town of Majalaya in Indonesia’s Textile heartland. Herman comes from a fishing family that has lived here for generations, but nowadays it’s a very different river – and Herman is fishing for a very different catch. There are hardly any fish left in the Citarum, but Herman is fishing for plastic. And there’s plenty of that.
Drink bottles, nappies, broken CDs, plastic bags and a myriad of other waste float on the surface of the river. Herman sells the plastic he collects to a recycling company, but the income is nothing compared to what he used to make from fish..
As we float along we do see some fish. But they’re all dead, decomposing on the surface of the near-stagnant river water. I askHerman why they’re all dead. It’s the water,” he says, “its toxic.” As matter-of-fact as if he was telling me the time of day. “It’s from all the textile factories. They dump their waste into the river and the fish have nowhere to go. Toxins in the water. Plastic on top.”
When Herman was younger the Indonesian government decided to encourage the textile industry to make Majalaya its base. Thousands of factories were built all along the river.
With the factories came the workers; there are now 35 million people living along the river Most of them have no sewage and no waste collection. Everything goes into the river.
Further upstream in the village of Sukumaju I meet Iwa. She’s a community activist and the go-to lady in her village. She gets kids enrolled in school, gets the elderly registered with a GP and helps them apply for benefits. here’s only one problem even Iwa can’t fix the water here is a strange colour, and it tastes funny.
Sukumaju village is surrounded by a network of canals, which carry wastewater from nearby textiles factories right past the houses. As we walk along, Iwa and I pass factories – weaving, spinning and dyeing materials for sale all over the world. Iwa points to a small outlet pipe coming out of the wall. The water coming out of it is dark red and steaming. “They dump their waste here at all times of day,” she explains, “You can tell it hasn’t been treated because it’s still hot. Its come straight from the dyeing vats.”
Nearby – in the communal laundry – she introduces me to Umar He’s just finished washing his clothes in murky canal water. “Today is a good day,” he says, “Sometimes the water is bright red or blue or green. We try not to use it when it’s like that but you don’t always have a choice.” As we talk the red dye from today’s factory operations starts to run down the canal past Umar’s house. “Once I had a wash in the water even though it was slightly green. It gave me a rash that lasted for months. I still have the scars all over my back.”
Out on the streets Iwa points to the children who are itching themselves all over. Many have a tell-tale rash on their faces a form of Impetigo caused by the combination of harsh chemicals and matter in their water. Iwa tells me children are especially susceptible, but everyone here gets it at some stage.
Everyone in this community has links to the textile industry. Iwa introduces me to her son Dimas. He has worked in the section of a local factory for two years now. It’s ironic. I spend all day wearing protective clothing because of the toxic chemicals in the dye. Then at the end of the day I watch as the waste water is released into the river.”
Dimas says factories in this area aren’t regulated, so they can get away with whatever they like. “Every factory boss knows that if there is an inspection it won’t be at night so they dump their waste in the evenings. Some of the placesI’ve worked at don’t even have all the equipment for treating their waste. If they were inspected how could they pass? They obviously don’t get inspected.”
Iwa tells me the waste water in the canals that surround her village is soaking into the ground water. People have noticed that the well water is changing taste, and local rice farmers say their crops are suffering.
Dr Sunardi from nearby Padjadjaran University has been raising these issues for years. His office is minutes from the river he has spent his career studying it. “The river is polluted. Mercury in the drinking water is 4 times higher than safe levels, there’s lead, high levels of iron.. all of these are dangerous elements to have in peoples drinking water.” He tells me the Citarum is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. The river has lost 60% of its fish stocks. So far his complaints have fallen on deaf ears. “The textile industry is too powerful, nobody wants to hear anything said against them.”