Bengawan Solo, the longest river on Indonesia’s main island of Java, has sweet memories for 45-year-old Suryanto. He used to bathe in it nightly alongside other friends from Gawan Village, one of many villages in Java that rely on the river as their prime source of water.
For the past 20 years, however, villagers have rarely gone down to the river for washing Suryanto said. Industrial and household waste along with farm waste such as pig and chicken carcasses have polluted the river, killing off much of its aquatic life.
"People used to look for fish here, but now they don't exist. Now it's dirty. Even small fish can die from waste," Suryanto told Tirto.id in early February.
More recently, pollution has prevented municipal water supply companies from using the river as a source of raw water, forcing residents to buy treated water instead.
A bridge over troubled waters
Gawan Village is located six kilometers from the center of Sragen City and next to Nglombo Hamlet. Bengawan Solo divides the two villages, with the closest connection between them at the Gawan Bridge.
But in recent years residents as well as people from outside the village have started using it as a dumpsite, throwing plastic, diapers, and other non-organic trash on the bridge at night, Suryanto said.
During this reporting team’s visit to the site, a pile of mixed rubbish spilled up to the lip of the river. At the same location at the end of 2019, thousands of algae-eating fish, known as broom fish, and catfish were found dead, allegedly killed by industrial waste from upstream.
Just more than 20 kilometers upstream of the Gawan Bridge is the Jurug Bridge, located on the border of Surakarta City and Karangnyar Regency. This bridge also serves as a dumping site.
Local community chief Djarot Santoso said the pile of garbage is not new. A 4x8 square meter wall was earlier built to contain the discarded trash, but it wasn’t long before it overflowed. Villagers finally proposed breaking down the wall, Santoso said.
He and local residents repeatedly asked the Karanganyar Regency government to transport the garbage that then began piling up on the banks of the river to the local landfill. They never received a response, he said.
Now, in order to reduce odors and keep rubbish from piling up, Santoso takes a liter of petroleum each day and burns what’s there.
“I can remind one or two people,” not to dump their rubbish, he said, acknowledging his limitations. “But if it’s everyone, how can I possibly do that?”
Suwarna, head of Karanganyar District’s Environmental Damage Pollution Control Division denied that the government was not responding to requests from residents.
"It is possible that [the landfill] is not official," Suwarna said by telephone on March 26.
Suwarna said his agency had established an official waste disposal site near Palur Market, about five minutes from Ngringo Village, the location of Jurug Bridge. He noted that "residents like to litter, even though the local government has provided an official place."
No choice but to pollute
How is the river that crosses 15 regencies in Central and East Java polluted by waste?
We can illustrate the answer through a pig and chicken farmer named Ponco, who has been running his farm in Ngringo Village for 10 years.
Next to his house is the pig pen and next to that there is a landfill as wide as a futsal field and then the chicken slaughterhouse.
Ponco said he cleans the pig pen and slaughterhouse with water every day. Every night starting at 11pm until 5 in the morning he cuts chickens. The water he uses to clean the facility runs through the gutter and into the Bengawan Solo.
Without proper waste disposal, we found during our reporting that small businesses have no choice but to pollute the river.
Ponco said the local government has allowed his business to be located on the edge of the Bengawan. Residents prohibit livestock businesses in settlements.
Suwarna said his department had to first check the location of livestock businesses, such as those owned by Ponco. All business permits must follow the detailed spatial plan of the city, he said. If livestock businesses are operating without waste management, residents violate the rules.
Meanwhile, Gatot Sutanto, head of the Surakarta City Environment Agency, said that the main problem with Bengawan Solo pollution is liquid industrial waste.
"Pig, cow, chicken waste [from slaughterhouses] and household waste enters Bengawan Solo, but industrial waste exacerbates the pollution,” Sutanto said during an interview in February.
He claimed that plastic waste did not significantly contribute to Bengawan pollution. And while he acknowledged that cases of pollution in the Bengawan Solo occurred every year, his office could not act alone on the pretext of having to involve inter-regency or inter-city agencies.
In contrast, Suwarna said the Karanganyar government could impose sanctions on companies polluting the environment "according to authority" without involving other districts.
According to Bayu Tunggul, a spokesperson for the municipal water supply company (PDAM) of Solo City, various waste, including plastic waste, has clogged pipes and propellers, causing the pump engine to burn.
"Garbage is not only plastic, but mattresses and diapers. So the river is like a garbage can. In the first week of the rainy season, all [types of] trash will be seen in Bengawan Solo," Tunggul said.
From our field reporting along the Bengawan Solo, we found that residents rationalized throwing used diapers into the river "to avoid curses."
Sri Mahanani Budi Utomo, chairperson of the region’s Community-Based Disaster Preparedness Organization (Sibat), explained this thinking. If the diapers are burned or thrown into landfills, Solo people believe it "will affect the baby's health, like [producing] itchy skin," she said.
As with most myths, it is difficult to prove. But the Sibat community, which conducts weekly river clean ups, found that baby diapers are among the rubbish they most frequently encounter. The most severe example is in Kebo River, a tributary of the Bengawan Solo.
Research by a team from the Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (Ecoton) found more than 1,500 diapers dumped under the Gawan Bridge.
Budi, who has been active in the Sibat community for the past five years, described the plastic waste in the Premulung River, another tributary of Bengawan Solo as dirty and stinky.
"On the Premulung River," he added, "there is a batik village and a textile factory. The waste is dumped into black, blue and red streams during work hours.”
No longer a viable source of raw water
Solo City resident Rully Wiyati, 52, is one of the municipal water supply company’s customers who was affected by the Bengawan Solo pollution in November 2019.
The incident caused the regional water company (PDAM), which supplies water to 18,400 people, to stop its business for two weeks. That was the first time in Wiyati's life when she could not get clean, piped water from PDAM. As a result, Wiyati had to buy clean water, which is more expensive.
"Before, I rarely bought drinking water," she said, remembering the incident. A gallon of treated water, which Wiyati could go through in a day, costs Rp15,000 (US$1). Sometimes, to save money, she would buy refills for Rp5,000.
For household kitchen water needs, the Indonesian Red Cross, the Regional Disaster Management Agency, and the Fire Department provided some supplies.
When Solo’s PDAM resumed operations, Wiyati said the color of water flowing from her faucet turned black. The same thing happened in Mojo Village, Pasar Kliwon District and Batik Keris Housing, Banaran Village, Grogol District and Sukoharjo.
Tunggul, the spokesperson for Solo’s PDAM, said the Bengawan River pollution at the end of the year came from small industrial waste in Sukoharjo, domestic waste and batik production waste. As a result, the regional water company has stopped three of its water management installations at Semanggi, Jurug and Jebres.
In Sukoharjo, Tunggul added, there are two sub-districts that make ethanol alcohol but do not have waste treatment facilities. In total, she said, there are 200 alcohol processors whose waste products end up in the Bengawan Solo.
"The ethanol waste pollution is from tributaries,” she noted.
Hydrological data from the Bengawan Solo River Basin Agency from 2018-2019 shows that water pollution levels ranged from mild to severe at six monitoring posts. They were, listed from lowest to highest severity: Nguter Post (Wonogiri), Bacem Post (Sukoharjo), Pepe Kali Post (Surakarta), Jurug Post (Karanganyar-Surakarta border), Kudungupit Post (Sragen), and Bojonegoro Post.
Tunggul said that the pollution in the Bengawan Solo made it the worst source for PDAM to treat. Plus the water quality continued to shrink below the normal threshold during the dry season.
"The Bengawan Solo River, in fact, is no longer suitable as a source of raw water,” she said.
Hormones in the water
As dry season kicks off, governments in Central and East Java provinces crossed by the Bengawan Solo have to deal with water polluted by the batik, textile and alcohol industries.
They also have to face another type of pollution: endocrine hormones from chicken waste.
Prabang Setyono, an environmental expert from Sebelas Maret University Solo, said the waste comes from broiler chickens injected with hormonal compounds to enhance their growth so they can be slaughtered at a young age.
When waste from slaughterhouses is disposed of in the Bengawan Solo it contaminates the water and can harm human health. High enough levels of those hormones, said Setyono, can accelerate puberty and interfere with reproduction.
For example, girls may start to menstruate as young as eight years of age and boys could see a decline in sperm production.
"This is new,” Setyono said. “Wastewater [treatment] installations are not prepared anywhere to eliminate hormonal waste.”
In addition, current government regulations covering water quality management and water pollution control do not include the hormonal waste that Setyono studied.
In the Ministry of Health's regulation regarding drinking water quality requirements in 2010, the parameters only call for measuring chemical, physical, microbiological, and radioactive contents, said Tunggul.
She also admitted that the facility did not have the technology to treat the hormone content in the raw water it manages. Even if there is, she added, doing so would increase operational costs.
This is a translated version of a story that originally appeared on Tirto.id on May 6, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity. The story is part of a collaborative project supported by a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN), and Resource Watch, an international research institute that focuses on issues of future sustainability.
Reporter: Reja Hidayat, Mawa Kresna & Hanif Gusman
Editor: Fahri Salam
Banner image: Illustration of Bengawan Solo Pollution / Credit: Tirto.id/Simply