A river runs through it: how responsible business practices can clean up Indonesia’s waterways

March 21, 2023

Restoring the Citarum River is a community effort

UNDP Indonesia

Standing on the muddy banks of Indonesia’s Citarum river, village leader Bapak (Mr) Cece recalls the time when the waterway was choked with toxic waste from the factories dotting the river.

“A few years ago, the water in Citarum river was so black and smelly. We stopped fishing there and washing our clothes in the river. Those who ventured into the river ended up with a bad skin rash,” said Cece, who has lived near the Citarum, West Java all his life. 

The 290-kilometer long Citarum river runs through several regions of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. According to the West Java Environmental Agency, the river basin is home to more than 2,000 industries including textile and pharmacy businesses, which provide hundreds of thousands of jobs. The factories have also stimulated local economy with development of infrastructure support in the surrounding areas. 

The economic benefits, however, come at a price. In 2018, the Citarum— which provides drinking water to major cities including Bandung, Jakarta and Tangerang—was considered one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the world. The polluted water affected communities surrounding, impacting their right to clean water and, a clean environment, their right to health, and their right to food. 

Polluted water affects women and children differently. Women are traditionally tasked with household work including cooking and cleaning, and at higher risk with the exposure to chemical waste. Pregnant and nursing women are at even greater risk. 

The acute pollution problem prompted Indonesian President Joko Widodo to unveil an ambitious seven-year programme to return Citarum river back to its clean, natural state. 

The ambitious program aims to make Citarum water potable by 2025.

The goal may be lofty but according to Cece, things have improved. 

“People can go fishing in the river now and children go swimming too, especially when it rains” Cece noted. 

But more collective action by the government, businesses and civil society can possibly solve the issue—and enforce responsible businesses that promote sustainability. 

In February 2023, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with the support of the European Union (EU) and in collaboration with the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime and Investment Affairs, conducted a training for 40 companies operating along the Citarum river, including private and state-owned enterprises, to adopt responsible business practices through the application of United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). 

Widely regarded as the world’s most authoritative, normative framework guiding responsible business conduct, the UNGPs articulate the shared responsibility of government and business in ensuring human rights in business operations are protected, respected and promoted. 

The training aimed to push participating companies to immediately carry out a human rights and environmental due diligence which enforce commitment from companies’ management. The due diligence also requires action plans to prevent, mitigate, and address the impact of business operations to human rights of the employees, vulnerable groups, communities, and consumers. 

Ahead of the training programme, UNDP also met participating companies to understand their challenges and practices. The team also met with communities to hear their stories on the impact of water pollution on their basic human rights. The information gleaned from these dialogues directed the training programme to align it with the challenges on the ground. 

The joint EU-UNDP Business and Human Rights (B+HR) in Asia project has also worked with the government of Indonesia to develop a National Strategy on Business and Human Rights, set to be launched later this year.

The National Strategy aligns with international human rights standards and provides guidance to cooperations in Indonesia to integrate human rights standards in their employment processes, promote non-discriminatory practices, foster a culture of equality, and ensure workplace safety. 

Just as UNGPs articulate the shared responsibility of government and businesses to protect human rights, Indonesian culture also promotes “gotong royong”, which fosters a  joint or shared responsibility to a community. When business and government leaders choose to fully embrace the UNGPs and its provisions for HRDD, Indonesia will can enjoy the fruits of economic recovery and sustainable development.

Making the Citarum river water drinkable is an inclusive effort. By encouraging more businesses along the Citarum River to adopt responsible business practices, we’re a step closer to achieving the 2025 target.


By Sagita Adesywi

Edited by Tomi Soetjipto and Ranjit Jose