Once a peaceful waterway rich in fish and waterside wildlife, where local villagers caught fish and used its waters to irrigate rice paddies, the Citarum River in West Java in Indonesia is a living (or dying) example of how much damage humans seem to be willing to cause to their environment.
Today it has the reputation of being one of the most polluted river in the world, and villagers who can no longer catch fish in it, pick through the pollution that carpets it, to try to earn a living.
25 million people in western Java rely on the river for drinking water and irrigation as the Citarum River traverses its 269 kilometers, passing through nine regencies and three cities. Of the 25 million people who depend on the river, 10 million live along its banks, split more or less evenly between urban and rural residents
Pollution to the river escalated with the rapid industrialisation of this area in the 1980’s, but many factories had been pouring toxic waste into its waters for generations before that.
One of the companies polluting the river,the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory dumped industrial wastewater containing methyl mercury, into the river from 1932 to 1968. Toxins built up in fish which were a mainstay of the local diet.
The damaging effects on humans from rivers polluted by heavy metals can sometimes take years to manifest. Symptoms include numbness in hands and feet, general muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision and damage to hearing and speech.
In some cases insanity, paralysis, coma and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms.
“By March 2001, 2,265 victims had been officially recognized with 1,784 fatalities,and over 10,000 receiving financial compensation from the company. By 2004, the company had paid US$86 million in compensation, and in the same year was ordered to clean up its contamination.”
— one of the disturbing elements of the above story taken from the Jackarta Post, is that the company appears to have only been told to clean up its act in 2004 after paying out millions in compensation and after more than 70 years of poisoning the river.