Cleaning the Citarum, dirtiest River in the world – faster than expected. Hats off to the Army and the Green Goddess!

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A section of the river after the army cleaned it up. (photo: IO/ Prive. Doc)

IO – Some have described the Citarum as the dirtiest river in the world. Whether that is completely accurate or not, it certainly falls within the category of the world’s dirtiest rivers. The river is full of plastic, rubbish, human and animal waste and harmful chemicals that factories along the river banks simply dump into the river. “Every day the Citarum receives 340,000 tons of industrial waste, 35,5 tons of human waste and 20,4 tons of rubbish. Every day!” declared Major General Besar Harto Karyawan in exasperation and anguish.

He then went on to explain that 35 million Indonesians drink the waters of the Citarum. In fact eighty percent of Jakartan’s drinking water comes from the Citarum River. It has three dams each of which has a power station that produces electricity and reservoirs where fish are bred for consumption. If the Citarum River dies so that there is no more drinking water or fish breeding, Indonesians will have to spend Rp 197 trillion to buy drinking water elsewhere and they will need Rp 10 trillion to buy other fish to eat. The river is also full of bacteria such as E-coli and Pseudomonas Aeruginosa (causing skin rashes, ear and eye infections) as well as mercury and heavy metals. Inhabitants along the river who bath in it, wash their cloths in it and even drink it fall ill. Little children suffer from skin diseases that never heal and many are born autistic whereas adults end up diagnosed with cancer.

The Citarum River flows from its source Lake Cisanti 269 kilometers to the mouth of the river at Muara Lembong. At the source there are more problems. Only

8.9 percent of the forest which is the watershed for the river still remains. The rest of the watershed land is in critical or severely critical condition. As a result, of the thousands of springs that once fed the river only about 826 remain. The forests on the slopes of the mountains that hold the water for the river have been cut down and replaced with potato and carrot fields. Consequently, the river has suffered from erosion, sedimentation and in places has become too shallow. Also the reservoirs of the three dams have so many floating bamboo fish baskets in them that the reservoirs can environmentally no longer support them all.

Before the army began cleaning the river it was a sea of garbage. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

Through the years the government has allocated Rp 63 trillion to cleaning up the Cisanti River but the money has apparently disappeared and the river remains as polluted and filthy as ever. What has happened to the funds and who is responsible for their disappearance and the failure to clean up the river remains the million dollar question. What does the BPK (Badan Pemeriksa Keuangan) or Government Audit have to say about it? Perhaps it’s time the KPK (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi) or Corruption Eradication Commission had a look into the matter.

Many people have made efforts to save the river but the first really successful campaign to galvanize a large segment of public opinion and push the government to take action was conducted by the Green Goddess, Irma Hutabarat a celebrity, who is famous as a political and environmental television interviewer and talk show hostess. Irma says that at first people were skeptical about her involvement. She commented, “People asked what is a Batak from Jakarta with no knowledge of the Citarum doing mixing into this? But in fact the environment knows no ethnicity. When but one fish dies in the Citarum, I am the lesser for it.”

Irma has not only been promoting cleaning up the Citarum via social media, but has taken concrete steps to do so herself. She is the head of itarum are as well as the Vetiver Indonesia Foundation and has been planting vetiver along the river banks. Vetiver is a type of long grass with roots that are meters and meters long and are thus able to prevent soil erosion and sedimentation (also a problem of the Citarum River) but beside this its roots also help to clean the river of pollutants such as mercury and other chemicals. Livestock such as cattle and goats like to eat it but its insect repellant qualities also appear to repel mosquitoes, rats and snakes. It is a form of wonder grass.  Irma knew what part of the solution to the Citarum problem was but she also realized that other actions were also needed and that it had to be promoted to make the public and the government aware of the problem and then firm action would be necessary.

Irma who is a strikingly good looking woman began with an approach that was all heart which struck a sympathetic cord in many people, especially the young and drew an immediate  response. Through social media she described the state of the river and expressed her anguish and rage that the river was sick, that it was dying and that it’s dying was causing so much suffering to the people around it. Irma describes rivers as follows, “Rivers are the veins of the earth and the bloodline of a nation. To evaluate the state of a land just look at its rivers. You know it is not just the water from the Holy land that is sacred. All water is sacred!”

Irma who is a woman of enormous empathy and generosity of spirit sounded like Indonesia’s Ibu Pertiwi (Mother Earth) or the Minangkabau’s Bundo Kanduang. She placed photographs and poems on social media and wrote with a passion that moved hearts and went viral. More and more people responded to her message including other celebrities. She was also not afraid to criticize the Governor of West Java, Ahmad Heryawan under whose authority the river falls. In a poem that went viral she berated him for spending time organizing demonstrations supporting the Rohingyas but not having enough time to take measures to clean up the river that is his responsibility and that he had promised to clean up during two political campaigns for the governorship; the river now dubbed, “the dirtiest river in the world”. The public response was enormous. Sam Bimbo from the famous Bandung Band Trio Bimbo which created many hit songs of the 70s wrote an article about Irma and the Citarum in Kompas newspaper and Hasto Kritiyanto, member of the West Java regional parliament from Kuningan, swore to take the matter to the President of the Republic.

In the meantime, Irma sent news of the state of the Citarum and all the social media action to a long-time friend, Major General Doni Munardo who was then the military commander of the Pattimura Command in Ambon, the Moluccas. Major General Doni Munardo is a passionate environmentalist and Irma hoped for his help but he was busy with the Blue Program to get the Moluccans to raise more fish and the Green Program where he encouraged them to plant more spices. He was sympathetic but too far away to help. Then in a stroke of fate he was suddenly moved and stationed to West Java as commander of the Siliwangi Command for West Java. Enthusiastically, Munardo immediately organized a meeting with all environmental non-governmental organizations concerned with the citarum and together created a program to clean Lake Cisanti, the source of the Citarum River using the Army. Within in one month the Lake had been cleaned.

Meanwhile, Sam Bimbo had a meeting with General Luhud Panjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs who went to Bandung and held a coordinating meeting with all the relevant institutions: the governor of West Java, the Ministry of the Environment (altogether 13 ministries were involved), the military and the police, village heads, mayors and regents (from along the Citarum) and all other stakeholders and created a hierarchy and a plan. After that Munardo launched the Citarum Harum or Sweet Scented Citarum, a name suggested by Irma as vetiver also removes bad smells. He then began deploying his troops to clean up the river which was divided into 22 sectors, each sector led by a colonel who monitored his sector of the river 24 hours a day.

In order to accelerate the program to revitalize the Citarum, a Presidential decree was needed but before issuing it the President wanted to visit the Citarum himself so he went to Lake Cisanti and there announced that the Citarum would be cleaned within 7 years. Presidential Decree number 15 of 2018 was issued in February of this year. Munardo however only remained in his position for 4 months. By March 2018 Munardo was promoted to Lieutenant General and reassigned to be replaced by Maj. Gen. Besar Harto Karyawan.

Munardo’s reassignment could have proved a disaster for the whole Citarum Harum program but fortunately, the new Major General proved to be as enthusiastic a force as  Maj Gen. Munardo. Not only that, but Maj. Gen. Harto is also passionate about agriculture and the environment and like Irma Hutabarat he is a man of the heart. “If you grow plants and then go away for a few days and find yourself missing them then you have established a spiritual communication with your plants,” he contends.

Major General Harto was tasked with the actual cleaning up of the river and his approach was to first get the community involved. He says that in the past there certainly was a local wisdom connected to the care of the river for our ancestors always valued water. The first thing that he did was to billet each soldier in the house of a villager. The Army would give each soldier Rp 80,000 per day which he had to handover to the home owner to pay for food and other costs. Most villagers welcomed the added contribution to household expenses. “This is because the soldiers need to be together with the villagers in their daily lives and communicate with them. Listen to their problems and then involve them in the solution; so that they own it. For too long the river has been the back verandah of the village where the villagers have their kitchen and bathroom, where they throw their rubbish and we needed to change that and make the river the front verandah of the village: a place to be proud of and to be taken care of ” explained Maj Gen. Harto.

Then the soldiers began to clean the river of garbage and most of all plastic for the river had become a sea of floating plastic and rubbish. At first they cleaned the main river but more plastic kept arriving from the tributaries, so they cleaned the tributaries but plastic came in from the sub-tributaries and the sub-sub tributaries and so on until the soldiers were cleaning small creeks and canal. The soldiers went continued determinedly cleaning the river. They set up nets across the river to trap rubbish flowing down stream, they dredged the river and removed tons and tons of rubbish and plastic by hand making the river cleaner and cleaner. And at the end the soldiers became so frustrated with all the rubbish that they finally put up a banner next to a stretch of clean water which roughly translates as, “For God’s sake we have cleaned this river till kingdom come and if anyone still dumps garbage here – just do away with the bastard!”

They also taught the villagers to separate rubbish and other means of disposing of it, including creating bio gas and compost for kitchen gardens (and for those with no gardens pots and hanging gardens) where they also taught the villagers the plants that are easy to grow for nutrition as well as raising chicken for eggs and goats for meat and milk. In short the Four Healthy and Five Complete Health Program. “I had a happy childhood. My father was a corporal but I was never went  hungry because this is a fertile land and we had a fish pond, chickens, a goat and my mother knew what to grow and how to cook it.”

So, far they have helped build 25, 000 toilets with septic tanks and piping and more are on the way. By removing the garbage and building the toilets they remove the source of bacteria that make the river so unhealthy. The Army is also having the water tested in the areas where factories dump their industrial waste into the Citarum and any factory found fouling the river is immediately reported to the police to be processed. If the police are slow in responding the Army closes off the factory. So far, 36 factories have been shut while awaiting further actions.

The military is persuading farmers to change what they are planting along the river banks and the slopes of the mountains in the watershed area of the river. To alter carrot and potato fields that cause enormous soil erosion to more ecologically sound plants. The military have opened nurseries where they have prepared more than 125 million seedlings of trees. All along the river banks the soldiers are planting vetiver and behind the vetiver:  flamboyant trees, bamboo, stinky beans and fruit trees. Acres upon acres are being planted. The vetiver and the trees stop soil erosion and the vetiver’s roots also clean the river of dangerous chemicals and heavy metals. “When I was in Japan, I saw how clean the rivers are and along their rivers grow cherry trees which the moment they bloom are so beautiful. Well, we have flamboyant trees which are just as beautiful that we can plant along the Citarum,” commented Maj Gen. Harto.

Another important thing that the soldiers are teaching the community is to create “bio- pores” which means creating small, vertical, cylindrical shaped holes in the ground and filling them with organic waste. These allow the soil to better absorb rain water, thereby keeping the water table level, preventing flooding and helping to create springs. It also helps to create a good top soil. To revive the thousands of springs that have disappeared in West Java and which used to feed the Citarum the soldiers have been digging bio-pores.

“We can do anything. There is nothing we can’t do if we set our minds to it. That is the strength of “gotong royong” (traditional working together and helping each other) and “Unity in Diversity” (the state motto),” declared Major General Harto. “The President has promised that the Citarum will be cleaned up in 7 years but we can clean it in 2 years. We just need to get the community’s supports. That is our task: changing the mindset of the community.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)