Running through the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the Citarum River has the distinction of being the most polluted river on Earth. While not quite as instantly toxic as the Techa River in Russia, the Citarum is so overflowing with garbage that is looks like a person could walk across the solid mass of trash.
There are 5 million people living in the Citarum River basin, though it carries the waste of 9 million. Most of these 5 million rely on the river for most of their needs, including drinking water, water for washing, and, of course, to carry away their own waste. The river is also used to along its length, despite the disgusting condition of the water.
The Citarum is also one of two rivers that feed Lake Saguling, which in turn powers a French-built generating station, the largest in Western Java. The sheer volume of trash on the river is in danger of slowing the flow to the lake, which could have power implications for much of the country.
The waters of the river are packed with a floating mass of garbage, but other dangers lurk below the frothy surface. The Citarum River also carries the sewage load of close to 9 million people, along with the industrial effluent of the hundreds of factories that line its 320 kilometre length as it flows through West Java province.
For many of the communities, the river is the only way to dispose of their waste. There is no central garbage pickup or modern sewage system. There is just the river itself, already swollen with the trash of countless others along its length. The masses of trash also cause flooding, as the flow of water is slowed by the veritable logjam of filth.
Recognizing the dire condition of this river, called the dirtiest in the world, in 2008 the Asian Development Bank (ADB), authorized a $500 million loan, to be paid out over 15 years, to clean up the river. One of the goals established by this fund is the establishment of proper sanitary systems along the length of the river, in an effort to reduce the amount of sewage flowing into it.
As cleanup efforts get underway, Indonesian authorities are hoping that clearing the river will make room for hundreds of additional rice paddies, and that the cleaner water can be used to alleviate the increasing water requirements of the city of Jakarta.
Though the dirtiest river on the planet, the Citarum is far from the only polluted river. All too often, rivers are seen as convenient ways to dispose of waste, as they flow away, leaving the problem for someone else. Eventually, though, these decisions come home, affecting everyone along the length of the river.