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The Deities of Citarum Have Gone in Despair

All lands on the earth are part of river basins or watersheds, not least in the area of West Java Province, which is divided into 40 river basins, and one of which is Citarum River Basin covering a total area of 13,000 km2.

The main Citarum River Basin has an area of approximately 6.600 km2, with a length of the river about 250 km, but it has been joined by many small watersheds connected through East Tarum Canal, with an area of 4.400 km2, consisting of many rivers such as Ciherang, Cilamaya, Ciasem, Cipunegara and Cipancuh, and also joined by another small watersheds through West Tarum Canal, with an area of 2.000 km2 consisting of Cikarang River and Bekasi River.

Citarum is a very strategic river basin, with a population of approximately 30 million. There are three large man-made dam, namely Saguling, Cirata and Jatiluhur, which produce 1.400 megawatts of electricity. Area of agricultural land irrigated by Citarum reached about 240.000 ha in the lowlands, and 150.000 ha in the uplands. In addition to meet the water need of urban, rural, industries, and agricultures in West Java, Citarum River also supplies 80% of raw water needed by Jakarta, the capital Indonesia.

Citarum River is originated from many small tributaries that flow from many mountains and volcanoes with elevation of more than +2.000 m above sea level, that lined surround Bandung Basin, among others Malabar, Wayang, Windu, Kamojang, Darajat, Manglayang, Palasari, Tangkubanparahu, Burangrang. The tributaries come from many springs in the mountains and volcanoes, and the most distant is from springs in Wayang Mountain, so it is often mentioned that Citarum River spring  is from Wayang Mountain.

In the uplands, the tributaries flow in 7 sub-watersheds, namely: Cihaur, Cikapundung, Citarik, Cirasea, Cisangkuy, Ciwidey, and Ciminyak, then all converge into one stream in the main river, Citarum River.

Aerial photo of the Citarum Jatiluhur area (2011)

Citarum River is not just the water that flows from the mountains and volcanoes to the downstream. The presence of ground water beneath the surface, the riverbed and riverbank erosion, dissolved natural minerals, fishes , water animals and plants, as well as other particles, both the living and the dead,  all are parts that can not be separated from Citarum River. Even bushes, riverside forests, puddles in the flood plain, and all the life on the river bank should be seen as an integral part of Citarum River.

Once  Citarum River leaves the mountains and volcanoes slopes, then it flows on the plain in Bandung Basin, the flow becomes slow, meandering, looking for an easily eroded riverbank, and the river valley becomes wider, which is filled by alluvial soil deposited since thousand years ago due to flooding.

Finally, Citarum River flows downstream through the three man-made reservoirs, namely Saguling, Cirata and Jatiluhur, continues to its mouth at Ujung Karawang in the northern coast of West Java.

The content of muds, which are carried by the river flow then settle in estuary, and formed a delta. Citarum Estuary is interface between fresh water and salt water, it is one of the most biologically productive zone. Many species of fishes live and become one entity and breed in the delta habitat which is rich in nutrients.

Citarum diversity is not only influenced by the area through which the river flows, but also by the changing seasons, as well as by the difference in wet and dry years. Seasonal and annual variations in the amount of water flowing in the river, sediments and nutrients which are transported by the river can be very striking, and forming special characteristics of Citarum River.

Almost all of the milestones  of human life culture history develop in the riverbank, as water resources are easily available. Lots findings relics that prove this hypothesis, as examples are ancestral human fossils that can still be found along Awash River in Ethiopia, then first civilization appeared in the third millennium  BC, along the Euphrates, Tigris, Nile and Indus, and then followed along the Yellow River. Much later important development in human history occurred along the river, as the next example is along a river in northern England in the early days of industrial factories.

Similarly, in the Citarum River, once believed to be the largest international port in West Java, when the kingdom of Tarumanagara came to power in 4-8 AD century. Citarum Estuary port is where the traders from many nations transit, trade, and build a civilization. Citarum River had also played an important role in the development of economic activities from coastal to inland areas. Artifacts and ancient Chinese ceramics are found along the river. Some came from Thailand, Vietnam, India, and even from Europe. The existence of temple Batu Jaya was allegedly built by the activities which was driven by international trade and development Tarumanagara Kingdom at that time.

However, since the first time human began to live on the riverbank, since that time also the river began to be exploited. The river water was taken, the fishes were also taken, it also served as transportation infrastructure, but the most severe human made modifications to the river, and conquered it. Even human "abusing" the river as a place to dispose of their household garbage and industrial waste.

The construction of river shortcuts, weirs, dams and reservoirs in the world, has brought great changes and drastic to the rivers, watersheds and river basins. Of all the modification to the rivers by human, the construction of dams and reservoirs are the most impact in changing the nature of the river, in total. The reservoir is the opposite of the river, the essence of the river is water which is dynamic and flowing freely, while the essence of the reservoir is water which is static as it does not flow.

A natural wild river is a river that flows naturally, ever-changing, erode the riverbed, settle the mud, look for the new channel, breaking down the riverbank, and may also be a little flow in the dry season. While the man-made dam is monumental, making the river to be forced to be controlled, forced to set the pattern of wet and drought seasons, may trap sediments and nutrients, and affect temperature as well as chemical processes. The most miserable thing is human and wild life have to move to nowhere because their homes will be sunk.

Geological history shows that nature is always seeking balance, the rain from the sky since millions of years ago, fell down to the earth then flowing through valleys which size corresponded to the amount of flowing water discharge. Flooding is a natural phenomenon, but then flooding turned into a disaster that destroys human life, because humans had exploited the river valleys by way of exceeding the carrying capacity, such as settlement areas, agricultural lands, and so on, so that the valleys became narrower. At the end, Citarum river which should give blessing of life, but instead had brought miseries.

The role of the river as supporting the continuity of life and fertility is reflected in the folklore of many cultures in the world. In many parts of the world, the river is considered as "mother": Narmadai, Mother Narmada, river Volga as Mat Rodnaya or Mother of Land. In Thailand, the term river is called “mae nan”, translated as “Mother of Water”. Rivers are often associated with the gods, especially female god or goddess. In ancient Egypt, the Nile flood ascribed as tears of Goddess Isis. Rivers in India may have more myths that contain epic story and meaning of religion in comparison with other countries.

Myths and legends are also owned by the Citarum River. Ancestor who lived around Citarum River strongly believe that starting from the springs until it gets to the downstream, is guarded by the gods or deities for the existence of the river to continue to provide benefits for human life.

It is said that around the springs of Citarum River at Mount Wayang Mountain is controlled by the kingdom of deities to protect the springs. If there are human who intend evil to disturb the presence of the springs, it will be arrested and imprisoned in the kingdom of deities, and impossible to return to their homes. The deities are ordered by the Almighty to preserve the Citarum River springs, in order to remain sustainable for human survival.

There is another myth about a prince of deity, who guard Citarum River, his name is Raden Kalung Bimanagara. His figure is sometimes manifest himselves with a form of handsome man-faced with golden-bodied big snake. Further Raden Kalung is always to help human who are affected by the disaster along Citarum River. Raden Kalung sometimes shows himselves to human who are fishing in the river, as a big and long snake. He will be very angry if human throw their waste into the Citarum, and will be damned, or get a painful punishment.

In the realm of modern logic, mythical guardian deities of the springs and Citarum River does not make sense. But the tale is understandable messages from ancient parents to their children and grandchildren in order not to disturb and destroy the existence of Citarum River.

But what about to say, time has changed, the very rapid growth of population has been exploited Citarum River in such a way. Behavior anthropocentrism has no longer care for the beauty and future Citarum River, whereas it is the source of human life. Upstream forest has been cut down, excavation of sand everywhere, floodplain and river border used as the settlement area, water bodies polluted by domestic and industrial waste, etc, etc.

Because human have violated the rules of nature by way of outrageously, and can no longer be warned, the gods become very sad, very despair, and then decide to go away from Citarum river, back to heaven.

Policies and behaviors of human are now killing the Citarum River, killing the Mother of Life. Should be believed, someday in the near future the Almighty will give lessons to human. Citarum River will take revenge, it will send disasters and calamities that make human in a big misery.

In closing, here is a poem, which I wrote in 2007, to remind everyone that the water also has rights:

Water Rights

May I introduce myself, my name is water,
I come down to the earth as raindrops,
Before flowing to the sea, I have places to stay,
In the forests, rivers, lakes, and in the lowlands.

    Nearing the rainy season,
    I always tell you, that soon I will come,
    So that you can return the places you borrowed
    So I can rest and flow calmly and peacefully.

When the rainy season come,
I come down to the earth, along with my all fellow rain
Be careful, I have warned you,
I will use my places, but why you are still there.

    After the rainy season is over,
    Part of my friends, still like to stay in the forests,
    Make the fresh air blowing, and  the water flowing for your life,
    But the forests where I rest, had been deforested, by your greed.

In the rainy season, I am forced to drown you in sorrow,
In the dry season, I am forced to leave you in thirst and drought,
Because you have taken away my rights.

By: Supardiyono Sobirin, Environmental Practitioner, member of Bandung Spirit NGO for Bandung, 17 February 2013


Boon, et all. 1992. River Conservation and Management. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN: 0-471-92946-8.
Patrick McCully. 2001. A Short History of Rivers. Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Patrick McCully’s: Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams. Publisher: Z e d Books 2001. ISBN: 1856499014, 1856499022.
Supardiyono Sobirin. 2007. Water Rights. A poem to commemorate the World Water Day 2007.
Supardiyono Sobirin. 2009. Citarum, Mitos Masa Lalu dan Skenario Masa Datang. Bahan Ceramah untuk Dewan Pemerhati Kehutanan dan Lingkungan Tatar Sunda.