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Textile Factories Contaminate Indonesia’s Citarum River

Hundreds of textile factories line the banks of Indonesia’s Citarum river in Java, and unchecked waste disposal has made it the most polluted waterway in the world.

A documentary titled “The World’s Dirtiest River” aired on the UK’s Channel Four series Unreported World last Friday, exposing textile manufacturers that operate on the banks and their apparent lack of regard for the local environment.

According to the program, reported by Seyi Rhodes, textile toxins have contributed to killing 60 percent of the fish in the river, and the water–which 10 million people rely on for drinking and communal washing–contains mercury four times the recommended level plus unsafe amounts of iron and lead.

“A perfect storm of industrialization, lack of infrastructure and population explosion has overwhelmed the Citarum river,” Rhodes said.

As a result, residents are suffering from skin diseases like impetigo and are at risk of cancer and other physical health issues. Sixty percent of children in the area suffer from skin infections.

One local said he has to use a cloth to filter the water because it irritates his skin. “On Sundays the water is a little bit better, less murky. Other days it turns green, yellow, red and black,” he said.

Water quality in Citarum river has deteriorated dramatically over the last twenty years, largely due to industrial pollution. There are other sources of industry in the area, but according to Greenpeace, the fashion industry is the main culprit with 68 percent of industrial facilities on the Upper Citarum producing textiles.

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“The printing and dyeing processes are particularly chemical intensive, and have contributed to the Citarum developing a reputation as one of the dirtiest rivers on earth,” the organization notes on a web page dedicated to information on the Citarum region.

Villagers in the Citarum are aware of the problems, but more than half of the adults in the area work in textile factories, which is their only source of income.

One local in the film said the factory he works for regularly dumps chemical waste into the river after hours.

Indonesia’s Association of Textile Manufacturers says its 200 members along the Citarum treat their wastewater, but it knows that hundreds of other textile factories that are not part of the organization do dispose of untreated waste in the river.

Greenpeace noted that PT Gistex, a major textile manufacturer along the Citarum has produced goods for Gap, and the organization has since called on the retailer to take action against the toxic water pollution.

Indonesia’s Deputy Minister for the Environment, Arief Yuwomo, told Rhodes: “We have a few strategies in place and we hope we can reduce these problems. If factories are breaching these laws we will take enforcement action against them.”

In the mean time, locals have started to take direct action to reclaim the river. According to Rhodes’ report, some villagers have decided to try blocking one of the factory’s outlet pipes in hopes that it will flood the factory and that their concerns will finally be heard.

United Nations Documentation Centre on Water and Sanitation (UNDCWS) has backed plans for improvements by 2023, and has said that if effective actions are not taken, water quality will further deteriorate and the general welfare of the population will be threatened.

The Channel Four exposé noted that the Indonesian government claims it shut down a factory for illegally dumping chemical waste, but did not disclose the name of the factory or any details about the incident.

The full Unreported World segment can be seen here.