Everyone knows the Ciliwung River is filthy. Stand at any part of the river, which starts high in the foothills of Puncak, West Java and winds its way to the mouth of the Jakarta Bay, and within 30 seconds you’ll probably see an unbearable parade of black plastic bags, rubbish and other random waste.
The river is a center of activity for many of the local residents. Children go swimming and their mothers stand guard on the banks, washing clothes and doing dishes in the water.
Everyone acknowledges the sad state of the river, but few are willing to tackle the problem. The biggest question is, how do you convince the more than 5 million people who live along its banks to stop using it as a personal toilet and trash pile?
A volunteer group called Komunitas Peduli Ciliwung (Ciliwung Caring Community) might have a solution. The group doesn’t focus on educating people about pollution, but instead tries to lead by example. KPC volunteers visit the river every Saturday and clean up the trash as residents watch them from the sidelines.
“We have about 20 to 30 members, and every week we do different things at KPC,” said 29-year-old Een Irawan Putra, who has been volunteering at the organization for three years.
“On the first Saturday of the month, we clean up the river. The next Saturday we plant trees, and then on Saturdays at the end of the month we walk along the riverside checking for water content.”
Every June, KPC and the mayor of Bogor sponsor a community cleanup day involving a 20-kilometer stretch of the Ciliwung and 12 districts. They try to get as many people in each district to collect trash along an assigned section of the river, and the winning district gets Rp 10 million ($1,100).
Last year, the one-day cleanup dredged 25,000 kilograms of trash.
“During last June’s river cleanup competition, there was one district that used a river raft to cover more area and collect more trash,” said Sheila Kartika, another KPC volunteer. “Not only is the number of people in the cleanup increasing, but their willingness to be innovative … is increasing as well.”
Teaching people about the dangers of pollution and open defecation is one of the hardest challenges for activists. People often don’t volunteer because they believe that no matter how hard they work to clean up, other people will keep throwing their trash on the riverbanks.
An Indonesian proverb that perfectly illustrates how some see KPC’s efforts is menggarami air laut , or trying to add salt to the sea. In other words, it’s pointless.
Despite these obstacles, KPC continues cleaning up and trying to lead by example. Its volunteers are looking for a tipping point, a moment when Indonesians simply decide that enough is enough and they won’t let people dump trash in the river anymore. Besides, they reason, if they don’t work to fix the problem, who will?
Count Me In is a volunteer initiative created by BeritaSatu Media Holdings, a sister publication of the Jakarta Globe, that aims to connect like-minded people with meaningful causes in Jakarta and across Indonesia. For more information, visit thejakartaglobe.com/pages/countmein or follow on Twitter @CountMeInID.