Recycling and education projects are helping local authorities and communities turn the Citarum, home to some of the world’s most polluted rivers, into a model of sustainable water management.

The Citarum River and its tributaries in Indonesia's West Java are a vitally important water supply for both the city of Bandung and the greater Jakarta region, home to 25 million people. Its waters irrigate farms providing around 5% of the nation’s rice and feed more than 2,000 factories on its banks.

But today, fishermen in boats on the basin’s rivers are more likely to be foraging for garbage to sell, as the fish have long gone. Over the past 20 years, water quality in the Citarum region has been decreasing rapidly as pollution squeezes the life from the waterways. Every day thousands of tons of household garbage and untreated industrial waste contribute to this enormous drifting mass of rubbish, completely obscuring the river in many places.

The toxic waste kills the rivers, fosters disease, and clogs hydroelectric turbines. The environmental damage also leads to regular flooding in cities such as Bandung, caused by deforestation and drains blocked with garbage.

Major cleanup underway

In 2008, ADB committed to provide Indonesia with a $500 million, multiyear loan to finance a wide-ranging cleanup and rehabilitation plan for the Citarum River basin. The money is being used to clean the Citarum River and the West Tarum Canal, which connects it to Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. The city gets 80% of its water supply from the river.

In Bekasi, a city in greater of Jakarta, ADB has helped finance a major engineering project to keep the canal water clean on its journey to the capital by running it beneath the Bekasi River, one of the most polluted in the Citarum region.

“Because of the siphon, the water from the West Tarum Canal is now separate from the Bekasi River, which is so badly polluted. The aim of this project is to improve water quality as demand for water in Jakarta grows,” says Tatang Suhartono of Bekasi’s Public Works Department. The Bekasi Siphon cost $1.8 million, of which ADB contributed 80%. However, trying to keep Jakarta’s drinking water separate from septic rivers is only a stop gap. The long-term solution is cleaning up Citarum’s rivers for good - a far harder challenge. Inroads have been made in reducing industrial waste being pumped into rivers, but weak enforcement of anti-dumping laws mean little has been done to reduce the vast amount of household and industrial waste poisoning the waterways.

Pius Suratman Kartasasmita of the Parahyangan Catholic University has worked with communities along the rivers in Bantar Caringin for nearly 2 decades. He has seen the water quality deteriorate markedly and children die of diarrhea from river water. “We cannot successfully enforce the laws against dumping trash into the water without educating people as to why this is wrong and about the importance of a clean and healthy river.”

The business of trash

Rolling out education at village level to change entrenched cultural practices, although successful, is only part of the story. Providing local groups with incentives to form businesses that turn trash to cash is equally important, observers say. ADB has partnered with local government and the Ministry of Health to support a community initiative that combines both in the village of Karang Linggar in the district of Karawang.

“Now we earn a good income from recycling not only our own rubbish but the huge amount that can be salvaged daily from the rivers around here. I have enough money from it to ensure the family eats better and my two children can now attend school.”

- Entus Sutsisna, one of the recyclers

Karawang village head Eneng Komoriah remembers life before the project. “Before the recycling started, people had no place to dump, so they used the river. That has all changed. People are now aware of the economic and environmental value of recycling trash.” The project has been operating for more than a year and directly employs eight people. The village plans to expand its recycling business and hire more people.

“Now we earn a good income from recycling not only our own rubbish but the huge amount that can be salvaged daily from the rivers around here. I have enough money from it to ensure the family eats better and my two children can now attend school,” says Entus Sutsisna, one of the recyclers, as he shoveled mounds of dirty plastic bags into a noisy shredder in Karawang’s new trash processing workshop.

Some recyclers are doing more than just selling trash fished from the rivers. Indra Darmawan’s Bangkit Bersama recycling company at Bantar Caringin harvests more than 35 tons of trash a month from the heavily soiled river that meanders by his premises. Dealing with the mountains of Styrofoam floating by means innovation is called for.

“I have developed a mixture of dried water hyacinth, natural glue, and Styrofoam that can be flattened out into boards or even turned into bricks for use in construction,” Indra says. He points to a new shed used for sorting trash. Closer examination shows it’s entirely built from the hybrid material. Plans include turning parts of the river bank into an ecotourism destination.

Recycling and education projects are springing up across the region as the central and local authorities partner with communities to promote the economic and health potential of cleaning up Citarum. There’s a long way to go, but the hope is Citarum will become a model of sustainable water management, rather than being home to some of the world’s most polluted rivers.