May 4, 2024

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Wastewater from textile factories along the Citrarum River, Indonesia


There are over 2,000 textile factories along the banks of the Citarum River in West Java, Indonesia that have discharged enormous amounts of chemical waste. The 9 million people who live on the river banks are frequently displayed by floods and face significant health risks including rashes, intestinal problems, and delayed child development.


The Citarum River is a dumping ground for company and community waste.  It contains faecal coliform bacteria levels that exceed mandatory limits by more than 5,000 times. The lead levels are over 1,000 times the US Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard. Additionally, levels of other heavy metals like aluminium, iron, and manganese surpass the international average.

The health conditions of the 9 million local people who are exposed to this polluted water are alarming. This continual exposure to these harmful substances, whether by ingestion or skin contact, can lead to severe health issues, including chronic diseases such as cancer, renal failure, bronchitis, and neurological disorders. The polluted water also has serious implications for the development of children in the community.

Socio-Economic Impacts

Waste pickers, often called scavengers, many of whom are unemployed young people or children in poverty, are forced to survive by sifting through the waste of the riverbanks and sell any recyclable items they find. The deplorable living conditions and exposure to hazardous materials significantly lower the lifespan and quality of life for these waste pickers. This situation is a dire example of environmental injustice, where the most vulnerable populations bear the brunt of environmental degradation.

Most of the residents rely on the Citarum river for their livelihoods. Domestic chores including bathing, cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes are all done with contaminated water. Many residents depend on the river for fishing and agriculture, but the fish species of the rover has has decreased by 60% since 2008. The toxins in the water accumulate in seafood, and the contaminated water used for irrigation rice crops can lead to toxic ingestion. This situation poses a serious threat to food security and economic stability in the West Java.


Under pressure from environmental advocacy organizations, the Indonesian government created the Citarum Harum, committing $500 million to make Citarum's water drinkable by 2025. This includes reforesting mountains, removing toxic sediment, enforcing regulations, and establishing environmental programs. The government plans to take stricter regulations against the nearly 200 compaies that discharge wastewater and set up infrastruutre for filtration and purification.

However, the progress of these initiatives has been slow and the river remains heavily polluted. It is clear that a more localized, community-driven approach is needed, which could involve public education, training in sustainable waste management practices, and the creation of local jobs in waste management and recycling.

Investing in technology for wastewater treatment can also play a pivotal role in mitigating the pollution. Decentralized, small-scale wastewater treatment systems could be particularly effective in this region, given the high population density and the spread of small-scale industries along the river.

The restoration of the Citarum River is not just an environmental issue, but also a social and economic one. The health, livelihoods, and well-being of millions of people depend on it.