What happens when nine million people throw their trash in a river, and corporations use it to dump hazardous waste? It becomes like the Citarum in West Java, Indonesia – choked with plastic, loaded with chemicals and human waste. A generation ago, the Citarum River was a peaceful waterway where wildlife enjoyed the clean, fresh water and villagers caught fish and made a living off the rice paddies.
The villagers can’t make money off of fishing anymore, so they’ve turned to picking through the trash that floats on the surface to find items that can be sold or traded. Rapid industrialization in the ‘80s is what led to this: more than 500 factories line the banks of the 200-mile river, many of them leaking textile treatment chemicals into the water. The trash that floats on top is the result of the lack of a trash pickup service in the area. All of the houses, factories, and other buildings along the river pour human waste into it for lack of anyplace else to put it.
Many people who live in the area still collect the water to drink, cook with and wash their clothes – they don’t have much choice, as it’s the only nearby source of water.
It’s unknown whether the Citarum really is the most polluted river in the world, since no study has ever been done to conclude such a thing. There are many other rivers that are also incredibly polluted, and many of them are located in Asia. Part of the problem is that wealthy countries like America pay poor Asian countries to take huge barges of our trash to dispose of. Electronics make up the bulk of it, and as today’s equipment becomes obsolete and we purchase tomorrow’s to replace it. Many of the world’s rivers may see fates similar to that of the Citarum River if we don’t begin a major overhaul of our sanitation systems, and help other countries with their waste management as much as we can.