My trip to the world’s most polluted river – by Sacha Laws

By October 5, 2018Blog

Citarum River – Indonesia (Java)

14/10/2017

Last year I set myself a goal, I wanted to become educated about plastic pollution and the problems it can cause developing countries. I had already planned to travel in 2017 but I knew I wanted to make the experience worthwhile and travel with a purpose. Once I had arrived in Asia, the first country being Nepal, most of the time, the plastic littering was just in front of me. However if I wanted to see how plastic pollution was impacting the locals on a large scale, I had to go out of the usual travelling spots.

Whilst travelling, I saw a campaign on social media where two brothers raised awareness of plastic pollution by kayaking down Indonesia’s Citarum River in kayaks, which were made out of plastic bottles. The campaign got a lot of attention worldwide, which resulted in the Indonesian government calling an emergency clean up over a 4 month period. This caught my attention, as I was travelling to Indonesia and was keen to see these extreme plastic pollution and the impact it is having on the local area and its people. Sometimes you have to see these things for yourself to understand the scale of the problem and not just through pictures or videos. I wanted this experience to motivate myself and push myself into volunteering and gaining experience in this area.

The journey started in Jakarta, the capital of Java. One of the busiest and most polluted cities I have seen in my life. I turned up to my hostel and spoke with one of the staff about the Citarum River. It took a while for him to understand what I was saying, as I was pronouncing it completely wrong! Cit-a-rum River, when it was actually Ce-tar-rum River. However once we were on the same page, he told me I needed to get a bus to Bandung and from there it wasn’t far. The next morning, I headed off, not realising what was a head of me. What was meant to be a 3 hour journey plus a bit of travel time to get from and to my hostel, ended up taking the majority of the day. But hey that’s travelling for you, it never goes to plan!

I met a few travellers at the hostel in Bandung and when I told them why I had travelled there and what my plans were, some were interested but the reactions were mostly confusion or disinterest. I wasn’t travelling to check off all the ‘must sees’ – box ticking is not how I like to travel. I wanted to feel like I was stepping out my comfort zone, pushing myself and learning about the issues that are facing these countries. I wanted to see the ugly side as well as the beautiful.

The next morning the hostel arranged a driver for me, called Toto. In the oppressive heat I jumped onto the back of his motor bike and we set off. It took about 45mins to get to a part of the Citarum River and when I arrived I had a feeling of disappointment, which was completely selfish of me. The river looked nothing like the pictures I had seen, where the river was choking on plastic waste. It looked like the Indonesian governments’ emergency clean-up had already taken place. Toto was not that interested at first and seemed to think his job was done, however after I showed him pictures of before the clean-up and explained I wanted to understand the problem of the pollution, his attitude completely changed. He wanted to take me further up the river and to narrower parts where you could clearly see the plastic clogging up the river. He took the time to explain why the river was being polluted and the issues the local people had. He told me that there isn’t a waste management system in the area therefore local people are forced to dump their rubbish on the side of the river, so during the rainy season the waste would be easily washed into the river but during dry season and when the pile is large enough, they set fire to it. This meant that the locals were inhaling toxic fumes every time a plastic pile was burned. He also explained why the river was so dirty because garment factories dump toxins, waste and materials into the river. So plastic pollution is not the only problem. It seemed clear to me, that stricter regulation is needed within the fashion industry to stop this level of pollution in countries like Indonesia, who are in the top 10 textile producing countries.

To the outside world it looks like the problem is being dealt with and this rose-tinted perspective is perpetuated further by social media. However, the clean-up is only treating the symptoms. Campaigns are critical to raising awareness, however we need the right action and the right knowledgeable people to solve a problem of this scale. To deal with polluted rivers, you have to treat the causes. Raising awareness through education and ensuring sustainable waste management systems are introduced that work for the local communities is absolutely key. This will ensure people realise the impact they are having, if people are aware they can do something about it. Action then needs to come from the government to support the local people and the environment.

I’m hoping the rate that the topic of plastic pollution is moving, real change will be made so the people of Java can benefit from the river, not only in terms of usefulness but enjoyment.