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The Unfragrant Citarum

Environmental pollution, either by textile factories or the actions of the people who live there, has made the health quality of the community around the neighborhood decline.
Photo & Text:
Iqbal Kusumadirezza
Friday, 19 May 2023

Yono’s face was tense. He was upset every time he remembered the losses caused by the textile waste that contaminated his rice, kale and cassava gardens. “I forgot to close the irrigation gates yesterday, and my rice fields and gardens were polluted again. This waste must have been dumped last night. In fact, the harvest is coming soon,” said the 58-year-old man.

Yono’s farm is located in Sukamulya Village, Rancaekek District, West Java. This area is crossed by the Cikijing River, one of the tributaries of the Citarum River. Over the years, the Cikijing River has become a dumping ground for waste from a number of textile factories. Even the condition of the irrigation channels is not much different. Therefore, the water that flows is black with a pungent odor. “Almost every day waste is disposed of without stopping through large pipes that are planted and lead to the river,” said Yono.

Apart from the pungent smell, the waste that comes out is often colorful and hot in temperature. “This makes it even more difficult for farmers,” Yono continued. The results of investigations conducted by Greenpeace, Walhi and Pawapeling in 2012 to 2013 showed that the Cikijing River was heavily polluted. The distribution area of the pollution reached 1,000 hectares.

The out fall of the PT Kahatex textile factory in Rancaekek, Bandung, March 2016. The outfall flows into the Cikijing River in Linggar and Sukamaju villages, Rancaekek.

This pollution has severely damaged agricultural areas in the region, such as in Linggar, Jelegong, Sukamulya and Bojong Loa villages. These conditions have led to a decline in agricultural productivity and huge losses. In the 2004-2015 period, for example, losses were estimated to have exceeded 1 trillion rupiah. This amount does not include the cost of restoring the environment after pollution.

Long before the three environmental organizations conducted their investigation, the Bogor Soil Research Institute had found indications of hazardous chemical compounds in farmers’ fields in 2002. Lead (Pb) and Cadmium (Cd) were found in the soil layer of rice fields cultivated by residents while Chromium (Cr) compounds were present in straw and rice. With such harmful contamination, a long-term plan is needed to restore soil fertility in Rancaekek.

A Walhi West Java environmental activist shows litmus paper (PH Control) for the condition of PT Insan Sandang Internusa's wastewater that shows 10 (alkaline) during a field visit to a textile factory in the Rancaekek area, Bandung, March 2016.

The face of the river in Rancaekek began to change fifty years ago when the textile industry boomed there. The river then slowly changed its function as a waste disposal site.

The local government has started normalizing the Cikijing River since 2022. However, according to Meiki Paendong, with such conditions, it will take a long time to restore the river from factory waste pollution. Especially if the factory disposes of its waste directly without treatment. “In fact, the river may never recover,” added the Director of Walhi West Java.

The Cikijing River is not only polluted by waste from textile factories, household waste also contributes to this pollution. This condition causes water quality standards to deteriorate. Carp farming, which was once practiced by many residents, is slowly disappearing because of this. The Cikijing River, which was once a source of life for the community, is now a source of disaster.

The face of the river in Rancaekek began to change fifty years ago when the textile industry area developed rapidly there. The river then slowly changed its function as a waste disposal site. This situation has caused local farmers, like Yono, to lose money every year. As a result, not a few farmers who own rice fields sell their land at low prices. Meanwhile, some farm laborers chose to move or change professions to become textile factory workers. In fact, this area was previously one of the rice barns in Greater Bandung.

A number of elementary school students watch the dredging process of the Citarum River sedimentation, in Dayeuhkolot, Bandung, July 24, 2012. The initial dredging of the 286-kilometer Citarum River from Majalaya to Muara Gembong Bekasi cost Rp1.3 trillion, which came from APBN.
Residents net plastic waste using fishing nets at Curug Jompong, Nanjung, West Bandung, West Java, June 2013. Curug Jompong is a flow of the ancient Citarum River that once functioned as a waterfall, but has now changed due to waste pollution.
Farmers plant rice in a rice field polluted by textile waste from the Citarum River in Bojongsoang, Bandung, June 2012.
Children playing in the Citarik River, a tributary of the Citarum River in Sapan, Bandung. August 2012.

Moments after the rain fell, the color of the river water changed and it had a pungent smell. Not only because of the odor, Eti and her family also suffered from the smoke coming out of the chimney.

For decades, Majalaya has been one of the textile centers. The sub-district in the South Bandung area is even said to be the milestone of the textile industry in West Java. The history of the textile industry in this area was pioneered by Ondjo Argadinata and H. Abdul Gani, two local entrepreneurs, in the 1940s. Two decades later, Majalaya’s textile industry began its heyday. Starting from producing 40% of the total fabric production in Indonesia to working on fabric manufacturing and yarn spinning of various famous brands, such as Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Cardinal, Pierre Cardin, Wrangler and The Executive.

The rapid development of the textile industry in Majalaya has made it one of the largest foreign exchange contributors to West Java Province. The region is even nicknamed “Dollar City”. However, on the other hand, the region is also the largest contributor of water and air pollution to the Citarum River. Nearly 80% of textile factories in Majalaya are located along the banks of the Citarum River or its tributaries, such as Citarik, Cikeruh and Ciwalengke. The condition is not much better than what happened in Rancaekek.

Workers weave threads using non-machine looms (ATBM) at a textile factory in Majalaya, Bandung, West Java, August 2012. The textile factory is one of the oldest factories that is still operating despite the use of non-machine looms.

“Almost every time it rains, the factory dumps its waste into the river,” said Eti (52). Eti’s house is only about 40 meters from one of the textiles factories in Majalaya. The location is only separated by a tributary of the Citarum River. Moments after the rain falls, the river water changes color and has a pungent smell. Not only because of the odor, Eti and her family also suffer from the smoke coming out of the chimney.

The health of her two children, Elis and Sari, has been affected. Both often complain of shortness of breath and itchy skin. “After playing, they must cry because they often scratch their skin until it peels off,” she said. Unfortunately, Eti has not been able to take her two children to the hospital for treatment. Her income as a housemaid can only afford to buy medicine from the stall.

Environmental pollution, whether by textile factories or the actions of the people who live there, has degraded the health of the people living in the neighborhood.

Farmers plow rice fields in an area near a textile factory in Balekambang, Majalaya, Bandung, West Java, August 2012.
Red-colored textile factory effluent discharged in an irrigation canal in Ciwalengke area, Majalaya. April 2014.
A resident bathes his rooster at a public restroom commonly used by residents of Ciwalengke, Majalaya. November 2018.

Research results from Walhi West Java show that pollution has occurred in Majalaya, both in water, air and rice fields. Of the 174 factories operating today, most dispose of production waste without going through a wastewater treatment process (IPAL). This includes coal waste. “Factories must have an IPAL because it is related to permit requirements. However, whether the WWTP is implemented or not is the problem,” said Meiki.

On the other hand, the increase in housing has the potential to increase the amount of waste entering the Citarum River. Worse, these residences are built close to the riverbanks and are not supported by waste treatment facilities. In fact, the number of people living along the river reaches 15 million. This situation causes a water crisis and slum environment that is often felt by the community. The results of the Kodam III Siliwangi survey stated that every day 35.5 tons of human waste are disposed directly into the river.

Environmental pollution, either by textile factories or the actions of the people who live there, has made the health quality of the community around the neighborhood decline. Based on data from the Majalaya Health Center and Cikaro Health Center, the number of community visits to the health centers reached 7,357 people with the majority of complaints of skin, respiratory and digestive diseases.

Residents scavenge plastic waste in the Citarum River, Batujajar, West Bandung, November 2022. In one day he can get up to 40kg of used plastic waste and sell it for Rp3,000/kg.
One of the houses destroyed by wastewater flooding due to a broken wastewater disposal plant (WWTP) of a textile factory in Nanjung, West Bandung. December 2013.
The deep black color of the Citarum River due to the discharge of textile factory liquid waste in the Solokan Jeruk area, Bandung, September 2017.

The black record of the Citarum River has actually attracted global attention. In mid-2017, two young men from France, Sam Bencheghib (22) and Gary Bencheghib (20), traveled the longest river in West Java. Their goal was to visit residents around the riverbanks and campaign about how polluted water is really dangerous for health and life.

A year later, President Joko Widodo issued an instruction to revamp the Citarum River. A derivative of this instruction is the Citarum Harum Program, which focuses on pollution control, spatial planning, and rehabilitation in the upstream area. However, how effective is this program in solving the deep-rooted problems in Citarum, considering that many previous programs have also been rolled out to save the river that runs through 701 villages?

The Citarum River in the Kertasari area of Bandung (upstream) has now been filled with agricultural areas such as potatoes, leeks, and carrots, November 2022.
Situ Cisanti, one of the springs of the Citarum River at the foot of Mount Wayang, Kertasari, Bandung. November 2022.

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Iqbal Kusumadirezza

Text Editor : Zhu

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