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Finding a cure for Indonesia's sick river

By Anna Coren, CNN
  • Citarum River in Indonesia supplies around 30 million people with water
  • Extreme pollution means many who live in villages along its banks often fall ill
  • Poor sanitation compounds the problems for health of people and environment
  • Asian Development Bank spending $500 million on river clean-up project

Bandung, Indonesia (CNN) -- The small village of Sukamaju on the outskirts of Bandung, West Java, is nestled within mountains and rice plantations. To the naked eye, the scenery looks beautiful. But on closer inspection, this ecosystem is supported by a water source that is sick and heavily polluted.

We've arrived to cover a story on the Citarum River, considered one of the most polluted rivers in Indonesia, if not the world. Around 30 million people rely on this water basin, and it provides 80 percent of Jakarta's drinking water.

While this water is obviously treated for consumption in the larger town and big cities, in Sukamaju what's in the river is pumped directly to the community. The only filtration available is a towel or sock wrapped around a waterspout. The villagers use this water everyday to bathe, wash and cook.

But for drinking, they will boil it. Health experts tell us this process will kill the bacteria but it certainly won't get rid of the heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

Near the village there are dozens of textile factories -- the main source of employment for many of the local people. They're also one of the biggest polluters of the Citarum River, spewing industrial waste directly into the waterways.

Video: Indonesia's dirty river

At one spot outside a plant, the water is black with pollution. Children play in it; crops are grown beside it.

A little further upstream, 10 meters before the water turns black, we meet a man who is washing plastic bags he will then sell. He says he does it here because of the strong chemicals in the water -- it helps him do his job more effectively.

We meet Nyai, a 60-year-old great grandmother who has a persistent skin infection. She has welts, lumps and dark markings all over her torso. Her daughter, grandchildren and great grandchildren all suffer the same condition, including 4-year-old Wildan.

The Citarum river is not dead but it needs a tremendous amount of work from all of us.
--Tom Panella , ADB

I ask him to show me where it's itchy and he points to the spots covering his face and neck. Nyai says this skin condition only became a problem for her village after the textile factories set up in the 1980s.

Asked if she's angry about the water situation Nyai replies: "We have no choice, this is the only water we have. Everyone in this village only has this water source. If it's raining then our wells will get fresh water. But if it's dry season, everyone must use this water."

Bad water is a deadly killer

But it's not just the factories using the Citarum as a dumping ground; the community effectively uses it as an open sewer. As we walk through the village, children squat over canals and defecate directly into the water. Any garbage is thrown in the waterway or dumped on the side of the riverbank.

Re-educating local communities on how to look after the Citarum is one of the main projects for the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It's investing $500 million dollars over the next 15 years to try to save the Citarum and the communities who rely on it.

The ADB will work closely with Indonesian government to rehabilitate the entire river basin, addressing the issues of pollution, sanitation, and environmental problems like deforestation, siltation and flooding. Tom Panella from the ADB is fully aware of the enormous task in front of him and his team, but he remains hopeful .

"The Citarum is very sick and needs everybody to help bring it back to a state of health so all communities reliant on it can have a good quality of life and sustainable livelihoods," he says. "It's not dead, but it needs a tremendous amount of work from all of us."