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Few answers for Indonesians who wonder what chemicals are dumped in their water

Banner image: Agricultural workers in western Java depend on the local Ciujung River, which is polluted. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law.

  • A new report from the World Resources Institute details a three-year investigation into how accessible information about pollution in local waterways is to residents in Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia.
  • While the Indonesian government has established laws to protect the right to information, enforcement is weak and both residents and government officials are confused about how to get and provide needed information about water.
  • The WRI believes Indonesia is capable of providing the needed information to residents and is working toward doing so.

Indonesia has robust laws meant to ensure communities can easily obtain information about pollutants in their water. But in practice, the right to information is impeded at every turn.

“Without information, you are not able to participate in decisionmaking or understand whether your water is clean,” Carole Excell of the World Resources Institute (WRI) said in an interview.

The WRI released a report on Aug. 30 about transparency and the struggle for clean water in Indonesia, Mongolia and Thailand. Excell presented the report’s findings during the ongoing World Water Week conference in Stockholm, which brings together experts and officials from around the globe.

The report found that many Indonesians don’t know whether their water is safe for irrigation, bathing or drinking. They don’t know what chemicals companies are dumping in their water, or the health effects of those chemicals.

The WRI, a Washington-based thinktank, worked with local organizations and residents to obtain information about their water that should be readily available by law. Some of that information is supposed to be proactively provided to communities by the government; some of it should be available through formal information requests.

Yet more than half of the requests for information were met with what the WRI calls “mute refusal” — that is, no response. In many cases when there was a response, government officials didn’t know how to find the information requested and had to ask residents for the specific names of the documents they wanted.

The information provided was often too technical to be of practical use to regular citizens. Much of the proactively released information resided in official publications or websites, not in local forums more accessible to communities.

Accessing information under these conditions is especially difficult for communities where education levels are low.

Fishing boats along the Ciujung River in western Java, where the World Resources Institute has been working with residents to obtain more information about industrial pollutants in their water as a step toward protecting their right to clean water. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law.

Rapid industrialization in Indonesia has added to the water pollution already rampant due to untreated domestic wastewater entering waterways. In 2012, the Water Environmental Partnership in Asia (WEPA) reported that 75 percent of the country’s rivers are classified as polluted.

Water use doubled in Indonesia from 2000 to 2015, according to the WEPA, which noted in the report: “The country is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions with the decreasing availability of clean water resulting from environmental degradation and pollution.”

The Ciujung River in western Java rapidly became polluted in the 1990s when pulp and paper mills, as well as other companies, began discharging into it. Anton, a local resident, told the WRI: “We’re still taking a bath and washing our clothes there. It makes my skin itch.”

Another resident, H. Maftoh, contrasted the current state of the Ciujung with a time before major industrial development: “Back then we could harvest a large amount of shrimp. It could reach a quintal [100 kilograms]. Now we can only harvest around a kilo.”

The river turned black for six months in 2015, inciting community protests calling on the government to clean it up.

Despite these challenges, the WRI report expresses hope that Indonesia can make the needed changes. It compares the situation in Indonesia to that in Thailand, where the WRI found information was more readily available: “The fact that Thailand passed its RTI [right-to-information] law in 1997 — over a decade before Indonesia and Mongolia — may indicate that information request response rates can improve over time as government officials develop the knowledge and capacity to implement the law, while at the same time the public’s knowledge of the law deepens.”

Excell said the WRI brought officials from Indonesia to the United States to see how information about local waterways is effectively reported there. She said the officials were interested in making improvements.

“I do believe that they would be able to do it, they have the capacity to do it — it would be a re-prioritization of how they currently release information,” Excell said.

Indonesians want information specific to their local waterways, and to the facilities discharging waste into those waterways. This is what officials should prioritize, Excell said, as they work to improve transparency.


Banner image: Agricultural workers in western Java depend on the local Ciujung River, which is polluted. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law.


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