A Community Struggles With Jakarta’s Water Quality

Muhammad Taher can no longer fish, due to pollution in Jakarta Bay. (JG Photo/Jonathan Vit)

Muhammad Taher can no longer fish, due to pollution in Jakarta Bay. (JG Photo/Jonathan Vit)

Muhammad Taher’s modest one-story home in North Jakarta’s Cilincing subdistrict is a short walk from the colorful fishing boats moored along the shore of Jakarta Bay. Discarded mussel shells crunch under foot as he navigates the narrow maze-like alleys, turning sideways to squeeze between people standing outside food stalls and tin-roofed shacks.

The streets of Cilincing are still dirt, but the main road leading into the slum was just recently paved with rough concrete. It’s one of the few signs of development in a place seemingly untouched by Jakarta’s wealth.

Taher walks through a blizzard of buzzing black flies as he approaches the bay. The pungent smell of fish is overpowering. Dozens of people — men, women and children — are huddled around piles of black mussels. Cilincing is a community devoted to a single cause. Some 12,000 households work to harvest mussels, one of the few creatures that can survive the pollution of the Jakarta Bay.

Taher points out the children squatting around a pile of mussels, their thin fingers separating meat from shell.

“Children at these ages are not supposed to work,” Taher says. “They are not supposed to worry about money. They should just play with their friends and not think about their family’s income.”

It wasn’t always this way. Taher recalls growing up in Cilincing, back when the water was still clear and his father could cast a net and catch fish from the shore.

“It was not a life of the rich, but we never felt any hunger,” he says.

Today, fishing boats bob on the dark waters of Jakarta Bay, a body of water so polluted by solid waste and industrial runoff that the bay is rapidly becoming eutrophic — or so depleted of oxygen that large fish can no longer survive, according to a Unesco report.

“The government really does not want to know about the problems in Jakarta Bay,” Taher says.

Taher is one of the 7,000 traditional fishermen still living in the capital. His livelihood, like the 7.8 million impoverished fishermen living along the coasts of Indonesia, depends on the sea. Most of Indonesia’s traditional fishermen live on $1 a day. Twenty-eight percent survive on even less, says Slamet Daroini, the manager of education and public fund-raising at the Fisheries Justice Coalition.

According to experts, decades of unchecked pollution, rampant overfishing and inadequate infrastructure have taken a serious toll on the nation’s waters, hampering fishermen’s ability to earn a living.

Women and children shuck toxic mussels in Cilincing, North Jakarta. (JG Photo/Jonathan Vit)

Women and children shuck toxic mussels in Cilincing, North Jakarta. (JG Photo/Jonathan Vit)

All thirteen rivers running into Jakarta Bay are heavily polluted by human waste, which, due to the capital’s inadequate sewage treatment facilities, carries bacteria-laden feces directly into the bay, according to the Unesco report and environmental experts.

Industrial manufacturers also dump dangerous liquid waste into the rivers, Slamet says. A survey of Jakarta’s waterways conducted by the Jakarta Office of Urban Environmental Study in 1997 found high levels of heavy metals — including lead, mercury and copper — and polychlorobiphenyls (PCBs) in Jakarta Bay. The contaminants, known to cause cancer and heavy metal poisoning, were found in sea life, birds and people at the time of the study.

Pollution of Jakarta’s rivers and bay had steadily increased since 1983, the study found.

In the nearly three decades that followed, the situation has failed to improve, Slamet says. He details reports of companies secretly dumping industrial waste into the river during the rainy season, when the rivers, and many of Jakarta’s low-lying neighborhoods on their banks, are overflowing with water.

The dumping is illegal, Slamet says, but enforcement is lax.

“The government cannot — or does not want to — penalize these companies,” Slamet says.

The pollution has driven Cilincing’s fishermen further out to sea, where they have to compete with anglers from Jakarta’s Thousand Islands for an increasingly limited stock of fish.

I cry inside my heart because all of the changes are so extreme and none of them bring any good
Mansyur, ex-fishermen

On Panggang Island the impact of overfishing is so extreme its effects can be seen from a plane. Marine biologist Elizabeth M.P. Madin has observed the lack of algae “halos” around the island’s coral reefs in satellite images.

In a study on the effects of overfishing of coral reefs, Madin explained that in reefs with a healthy population of predatory fish, smaller plant-eating fish only travel a short distance from the safety of the reef to feed. Their feeding habits produce halos around the reefs.

The halos are no longer visible on reefs near Panggang Island, according to the report published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

“What our results show is that fishing can have surprising, but very clear, effects throughout coral reef ecosystems,” Madin said in a press release announcing the findings.

For Taher, traveling nearly 13 kilometers to cleaner waters no longer makes economic sense. He used to charter a larger boat with other local fishermen and head out for three days at a time. But the fuel, food and supplies needed for a fishing trip to the Thousand Islands could cost the men more than Rp 2.5 million ($261).

On good trips, Taher was able to take home Rp 150,000. During lean times, he brought home Rp 50,000. He now fishes on a “bagan” — a wooden platform suspended above open water — to save money.

“It is really difficult now to go fishing and there is no balance between the costs and the [money] made,” he says. “That is why there are so many who stopped being traditional fishermen.”

Mansyur, a longtime fishermen, says he struggles to earn a living in Jakarta's polluted bay. (JG Photo/Jonathan Vit)

Mansyur, an ex-fishermen, says he struggles to earn a living in Jakarta’s polluted bay. (JG Photo/Jonathan Vit)

Only 25 percent of Cilincing’s men still fish, Taher said. And most of the remaining fishermen are drowning in debts owed to the loan sharks who started to circle once the community fell on hard times.

They offer the men predatory loans at 25 to 30 percent interest rates, Taher says. It’s a dangerous system, but one that many fishermen turn to when they cannot afford to feed their families, he explained.

“We sometimes can only pay the interest,” Taher says. “Many of the traditional fishermen who once had houses lost them.”

Taher sees hope in the community’s mussel harvest. He walks through the bustling community, proudly explaining how the shellfish have allowed his neighbors to survive.

But the mussels, like much of the sea life found in Jakarta Bay, have been contaminated by heavy metals. The local government stopped issuing permits to farm mussels from Jakarta Bay last year, explaining that the filter feeders absorb the toxic chemicals found in the bay.

But the residents of Cilincing have few other options, Taher says.

A weathered 55-year-old man interrupts Taher’s tour with a slight handshake. Mansyur used to be a fisherman, but he now harvests mussels. The changes, he said, are heartbreaking.

“I feel very sad seeing these bad changes,” Mansyur says. “I cry inside my heart because all of the changes are so extreme and none of them bring any good.”

Mansyur has lived through the regimes of Sukarno and Suharto, the economic collapse and the ensuing recovery. But it is Indonesia’s economic growth, and the population and manufacturing boom it fuels in Jakarta, that may prove to be too much.

If Jakarta, and the rest of the nation, fails to curb pollution and dumping, traditional fishermen may become a thing of the past, Slamet says.

“In my opinion, the fishermen do not have any future in Jakarta,” he says.