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Pollution flows freely in Indonesia's rivers

Lax environmental regulations have allowed textile factories to dump toxic chemicals in the Citarum River.

Last updated: 21 Nov 2013 13:16
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Tests have found highly alkaline liquid being discharged into the Citarum River [Clea Broadhurst/Al Jazeera]

Bandung, Indonesia - Ibu Entin can remember when children played in the Citarum River.

Growing up in the village of Majalaya, West Java, she was able to wash her clothes and bathe her younger sister in the water. But much has changed since her family moved here in 1973. The grey, plastic-strewn liquid that oozes past her community is now a drab reflection of her childhood memories.

For the past four decades, Indonesia's lax pollution controls have allowed industries to discharge toxic waste into the Citarum with near impunity. West Java's inadequate waste-disposal infrastructure has made the river the de facto dumpsite for its residents. Huge volumes of rubbish float through its murky waters and accumulate in stinking piles along its banks. Poor sanitation means human waste flows into the river untreated, along with farm slurry and pesticides.

Today, the Citarum and its surroundings are a wasteland.

Earlier this month, two environmental NGOs, Green Cross Switzerland and the Blacksmith Institute, named the river one of the world's top ten most polluted sites, next to Chernobyl in Ukraine and the Niger Delta in Nigeria.

Ibu Entin and her granddaughter outside her home in Majalaya [Clea Broadhurst/Al Jazeera]

In 2009, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced a $500m loan to rehabilitate the Citarum, but four years later it has yet to invest any of that money in water rehabilitation.

"It's a shame I can't offer you a drink," Entin says, sitting with her five-year-old granddaughter outside her home.

Since the 1970s more than 800 textile factories have set up in and around Majalaya, earning it the moniker "Dollar City". Entin recalls the opening of the first dyeing factory, around the time she got married in 1976, as the time when the river noticeably started to change. "The water would go green, black, yellow, brown. When it turned white it smelt especially bad," she says.

No one bathes in the river anymore, but Entin and her family must still use it to shower, clean their dishes and brush their teeth. They have no other option.

They are lucky that they can get drinking water from a neighbour's well. Fifteen million people remain directly reliant on the Citarum for drinking and bathing water.

Sitting next to Entin, her granddaughter sporadically scratches her forearms. Skin irritation is widespread in Majalaya, itching is experienced by most of those who use the water to wash, and many suffer chronic dermatitis. Respiratory problems are also very common.

"I never feel clean," Entin says. "I have a reddish mark on my skin, all of my body feels itchy and I struggle to sleep at night. It's the same for my family. All of the people who live here have skin problems, from top to bottom … Now, if the water colour changes quickly, the itching gets worse. I'm angry, but I don't know who to get angry at. We talk to the community leaders, and they went to the factories already, but they don't respond. The only thing that matters to them is to keep the business running, not the villagers' lives."

Culture of impunity

Members of the Elingan Community Group, which represents the interests of Majalaya's residents, claim to have been threatened for speaking out. Elingan leader Deny Riswandani says he has received so many threats that he has been forced to move to another area and must constantly change his phone number.

As one of the most important economic interests in the country, textile manufacturers are powerful political players. In 2010, textiles accounted for 8.9 percent of the country's total exports, and textiles, leather products and footwear contributed 9 percent to Indonesia's GDP. An estimated 11 percent of the total industrial labour force - 1.3 million people as of 2011 - works in the industry.

Industry is using [the Citarum River] as a kind of testing ground for industrial chemicals.

- Ahmad Ashov, Greenpeace campaigner 

The products of many multinational clothing brands are manufactured here, with 61 percent of garments being shipped to foreign markets. The impact of these hard economic facts on the government's attitude to regulation is difficult to determine. What is certain, however, is how utterly regulation has failed.

To date, the Citarum has not met Indonesian water quality standards since they were established in 1989.

Meanwhile, the river supplies 80 percent of Jakarta's surface water and it irrigates five percent of the country's rice farms. "Industry is using [the Citarum River] as a kind of testing ground for industrial chemicals," says Ahmad Ashov, a toxic campaigner for Greenpeace in Southeast Asia. According to Ahmad, the government only regulates 264 chemicals, out of the 100,000 that are used in the global textile industry - and to which 1,500 are added every year.

This effectively allows companies to discharge thousands of hazardous chemicals without fear of prosecution.

Even if a factory is discharging one of the 45 industrial chemicals banned under Indonesian law, Ahmad says it is an open secret that inspectors can be paid to look the other way. Thus far, only 14 companies have ever received administrative or criminal sanctions for contamination of the Citarum.

A Greenpeace investigation into PT Gistex Textiles Division - whose parent company PT Gistex Group supplies Gap, H&M and Adidas - found that their effluent contained an array of hazardous chemicals, despite having been deemed legally compliant, from 2010-11, with the government's Public Disclosure of Industrial Pollution programme (PROPER).

According to Greenpeace's report, tests carried out in May 2012 at the factory, located in Cimahi, 40km from Majalaya, found wastewater from one of the facility's outflow pipes to be pH14 - the highest possible level of alkalinity, capable of burning human flesh.

"During the tests I got a couple of tiny splashes on my face," Ahmad says. "It hurt and then was itchy for about a week."

At the facility's main outflow pipe they detected nonylphenol, a well-known persistent environmental contaminant with hormone-disrupting properties, together with nonylphenol ethoxylates, tributyl phosphate and high levels of dissolved antimony.

Denial

All of the substances are internationally known to be damaging to human health and animal and plant life, but none of them are regulated by the Indonesian government.

Gap Inc - whose brand name was featured on PT Gistex's website until March 2013 - denied sourcing from PT Gistex Textile Division, from which the wastewater samples were taken. However, Gap admitted purchasing products from "another facility" owned by PT Gistex Group, located 30km from PT Gistex Textile Division.

The Adidas Group denied sourcing from PT Gistex Textile Division but confirmed that it had an indirect sourcing relationship, through a licensee, with PT Gistex Garment Division, located 30km away in Cileunyi.

H&M denied having a business relationship with PT Gistex Textile Division but admitted buying garments from PT Gistex Garment Division. H&M said there was "no found evidence" that any fabric from PT Gistex Textile Division had been used in any H&M products produced by PT Gistex Garment Division.

PT Gistex Group failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview or statement. On one occasion Gistex's receptionist claimed that their spokesperson was unable to talk because he was in intensive care with a stomach complaint.

You've got these factories that are in many cases providing pollution. But at the same time they are employing hundreds of thousands of people who need a place to work.

- Thomas Panella, ADB water resource specialist

Since the Citarum was identified as a "super-priority river" in 1984, the river's water quality has continued to deteriorate. As part of a $3.5bn government project to restore the Citarum River Basin in 2009 the ADB lent the Indonesian government $500m, to be released over a period of 15 years.

But in an interview, Thomas Panella, a principal water resources specialist at the ADB, struggled to explain why, four years since the announcement of the loan, no money had yet been channeled into improvement of water quality.

He stressed the need to look at the bigger picture and that water rehabilitation was only one aspect of rehabilitating the river. "You've got these factories that are in many cases providing pollution. But at the same time they are employing hundreds of thousands of people who need a place to work," he explains. "There are a lot of difficult issues that need to be addressed… You can't do everything."

According to Panella, $130m will be released for water rehabilitation projects in 2014, but he says Indonesia's decentralised government structure would "raise challenges" for administering the money.

"We are a financier, we work with the government," he says. "The government decides how it will spend its funds."

The office of Rasio Ridho Sani, deputy minister for hazardous waste, claimed the issue of waste management on the Citarum River fell outside of his responsibility and said to seek comment from M.R. Karliansyah, Deputy Minister of Pollution Control.

M.R. Karliansyah's office claimed the subject matter also fell outside of his remit and said to speak to Rasio Ridho Sani.

Four other Indonesian officials repeatedly contacted for comment did not respond by the time of publication.

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Al Jazeera
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