Indonesia aims to banish toxic waste from lifeline river

MAJALAYA, Indonesia, March 2 (Reuters) - Indonesia's Citarum river burbles past terraced rice paddies and quiet farming villages in the highlands of West Java, as it begins to wind its way hundreds of kilometers towards the sea.

But the charm evaporates swiftly as the river, often labeled the world's most polluted, descends past crowded zones of factories and homes that dump a pungent stew of garbage, waste and sewage into its 190-mile stretch.

"The water looks like it has been mixed with the waste, and sometimes it smells like ointment," said Nurhayati, who lives in the riverside town of Majalaya, 81 miles southeast of Jakarta, the capital. 

Among the river's worst polluters are dozens of textile factories in Majalaya that dump chemical waste, said Arif Havas Oegroseno, a deputy minister who coordinates maritime affairs.

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Indonesia aims to banish toxic waste from Citarum river
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Indonesia aims to banish toxic waste from Citarum river

Environmental activist Deni Riswandani holds up cups of water from the Citarum river (R) and water from a tributary which runs through an area densely populated with textile factories (L) where the two meet near Majalaya, south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, January 26, 2018.

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A fisherman operates his boat at the mouth of the Citarum river north-west of Muara Gembong, West Java province, Indonesia, February 22, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A worker collects sand from the bottom of the Citarum river in order to make bricks, near Majalay, south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, January 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

An Indonesian soldier burns trash collected from the banks of the Citarum river during a clean-up operation, south of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 13, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Men guide a boat carrying sand past where a section of the Citarum river is joined by a polluted tributary which runs through an area densely populated with textile factories near Majalaya, south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, January 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Rolls of cloth are stacked in the warehouse of a textile factory which has its own water treatment facilities located near the Citarum river in Majalaya, south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 14, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Farmers plant rice close to the Citarum river near Muara Gembong, West Java province, Indonesia, February 22, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A woman and a child wash on the porch of a house located near the mouth of the Citarum river north-west of Muara Gembong, West Java province, Indonesia, February 22, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Students walk through rice fields located in Majalaya, a town densely populated with textile factories, south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, January 25, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

An Indonesian soldier cuts away garbage wrapped around the propeller on a pontoon boat during a clean-up operation along the Citarum river, south of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 13, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Indonesian soldiers work during a clean-up operation along the Citarum river, south of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 13, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Ferrymen guide a boat across the Citarum river, south-east of Muara Gembong, West Java province, Indonesia, February 22, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A farmer works in a rice paddy near a stream which flows into the Citarum river, in the mountains south of Bandung, near Pacet, West Java province, Indonesia, February 24, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Floating fish farms are seen on the Jatiluhur Reservoir, part of the Citarum river basin, near Purwakarta, West Java province, Indonesia, February 15, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A woman uses her mobile phone while walking in flood waters after heavy seasonal rains caused the Citarum river to flood in Dayeuhkolot, south of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 23, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Waste water at a textile factory is treated before being released into a stream that joins the Citarum river in Majalaya, south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 14, 2018.

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A woman pushes her scooter down a flooded street after heavy seasonal rains caused the Citarum river to flood in Dayeuhkolot, south of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 23, 2018.

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Women wash clothes in water from a tributary of the Citarum river in Majalaya, a town densely populated with textile factories, south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, January 25, 2018.

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Women board a small boat used as a ferry to cross the Citarum river south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 8, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A woman sells salt water fish from the Java Sea near her roadside stand next to the Citarum river south-east of Muara Gembong, West Java province, Indonesia, February 22, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Men fish at a polluted tributary, which runs through an area densely populated with textile factories and where it joins the Citarum river, near Majalaya, south-east of Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, February 14, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A fisherman sails his boat at the mouth of the Citarum river north-west of Muara Gembong, West Java province, Indonesia, February 22, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

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"They throw the dyed water into the smaller rivers that flow into the Citarum," Oegroseno told Reuters. "The small branches, sometimes they're white, sometimes black, red, blue or yellow."

His ministry is spearheading a new campaign to achieve President Joko Widodo's ambition of making the water in Indonesia's most strategic river basin drinkable by 2025.

Long before it hits the sea on the eastern shores of Jakarta Bay, the river turns into a toxic cocktail the color of coffee.

Children fly kites and play beside piles of floating trash in some parts of the river, but others avoid it as being a mere garbage dump. Yet further downstream, women in conical hats work in fields irrigated by the river.

They are among the 28 million people who depend on the river waters, which supply Jakarta, support 988,422 acres of rice paddies, sustain fish farms and fill reservoirs that generate about 2 gigawatts of hydropower.

The key to keeping the river clean will be educating people and toughening enforcement of environmental controls, said Oegroseno, who vowed to shut polluting factories and make them fund clean-ups.

"Right now we are giving them warnings," he said.

Hundreds of soldiers were recently posted along the river to retrieve garbage, which gets burned as part of the ambitious program backed by more than 10 ministries, local government, community groups, the police and the military.

Activists and green groups blame the failure of the government's previous clean-up efforts on a lack of monitoring and difficulties enforcing regulations.

Last May, Greenpeace and several community bodies won a long court battle to revoke the permits of polluting factories in Rancaekek, on the outskirts of Bandung, where the group says pollution caused losses of 11.4 trillion rupiah ($831 million).

"We found that waste water permits were handed out from year to year, but no one was evaluating the impact on the environment," said Ahmad Ashov, one Greenpeace campaigner.

"There was no monitoring."

In response, Anang Sudarna, head of the West Java Environment Agency, said several government departments issued permits based on environmental impact assessments and community consultation.

"We do supervise, but the manpower we have is not enough," Sudarna told Reuters, adding that equipment also fell short.

"We are fixing this."

Deni Riswandani, an activist who demands tighter pollution measures, estimates 1,500 industries dump 280 tonnes of chemical waste in the river each day, but said that even with evidence, it was tough to enforce environmental rules.

"It's a long process, it's expensive and they play games."

Majalaya resident Nurhayati said she played in the river when she was younger and continued to use its water for washing and drinking, even after the factories and pollution arrived.

Her two children have had skin problems, she said, adding, "I'm worried, but what else can I do? There's no other water." ($1=13,713 rupiah)

(Reporting by Fergus Jensen; Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana and Yuddy Cahya; Editing by Karishma Singh and Clarence Fernandez)

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