Citarum: Indonesian River Keeps Textile Industry’s Dirty Secrets
This documentary concerns the world’s dirtiest river, the Citarum River in Indonesia. Citarum Island, one of the poorest regions in the world, is home to 5,000 factories producing clothing for fast fashion labels such as H&M, Calvin Klein, Uniqlo, Tommy Hilfiger and Marks and Spencer (see The made in Indonesia opportunity). All illegally discharge toxic waste into the river.
In addition to irrigating 4,000 rice fields, the Citarum provides drinking water to 25 million residents. Rice farmers complain of severe skin rashes and ulcers, as well as the virtual collapse of their rice harvest.
After a three year investigation, local activists discovered that Citarum lead levels were three times and polonium* and chromium levels six to seven times higher than limits set by the Indonesian government. Treating waste water, which costs $1,000 per cubic meter, would either force contractors to increase the price they charge Western garment brands or cut into their profits.**
In 2018, activists won a lawsuit against Famatex, one of the largest textile contractors. After ordering the company to stop discharging toxic waste (according to Indonesian law the judge should have shut Famatex down), local authorities used cement to dam up illegal drainage pipes the manufacturer used to discharge toxic waste. Activists later found the company had removed the cement.
Famatex also refused to allow local activists to inspect their toxic waste treatment facilities as ordered by the court.
In 2018, the filmmakers collected Citarum River water samples to be tested by an independent Indonesian lab. The government has forbidden the lab to release the results.
Activists report household sewage and waste is at least 50% responsible for Citarum River contamination – local residents have no access to garbage collection, recycling facilities or sewage collection and treatment. The river is responsible for roughly two-thirds of the 2 million tonnes of plastic waste that ends up in the world’s oceans.
*Polonium is a highly radioactive element which is deadly in very low concentrations. In commercial applications, polonium is occasionally used to remove static electricity in machinery or dust from photographic film.
**Yet another compelling reason (in addition to its massive carbon footprint) to boycott fast fashion. See https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-017-0058-9