Indonesian Borneo: Water pollution from a coal mine brings misery to those downstream

Student activist Taufik Iskandar, 26, from Santan Ilir village, East Kalimantan. Photo credit: Ardiles Rante

“The Santan River is the lifeblood of the people of Santan Ilir, Santan Tengah and Santan Hulu villages,” Taufik Iskandar, a student activist from the Marangkayu Student Association in Santan Ilir, located in the Kutai Kartanegara district of East Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, said. “This river has great historical value. Before there was a road, the people of Santan transported their agricultural products by river to be sold in Samarinda and Bontang.”

The river does not only serve as a means of transport; residents depend on it for clean water to meet their daily needs as well as flood their fishponds and fields. People of the villages “regularly hold traditional ceremonies to [honour] the river and the resources,” Iskandar continued.

But since the coal mining started at the top of the Santan River, the villagers are slowly leaving the waterway as the quality of the river water continues to deteriorate. Local activists describe the water as muddy, cloudy, and liable to flood whenever it rains. According to Greenpeace Campaigner Bondan Andriyanu, the waters of the Santan River “changes colours” as well. “Sometimes it is brown, sometimes green, or yellow,” he elaborated.

The Indominco Mandiri coal mine in Santan Ilir village. Operations at the coal mine have polluted the Santan River the villagers depend on for their livelihoods. Photo credit: Ardiles Rante

The mine at the head of the river, operated by PT Indominco Mandiri, produces 9 million tons (8.1 million tonnes) of coal per year, and it is this same operation that has left the waters of the Santan River unfit for aquaculture, consumption, and irrigation and agriculture.

The villagers living downstream from the mine are now required to clean the river water with alum before it can be safely consumed. However, further upstream beyond the mine, the waters are untouched and do not need treatment.

Saharuddin, a teacher in Santan Ilir, says that villagers are forced to spend their money purchasing clean water from merchants who trade water from deep wells. The water from the river also cannot be used to fill the ponds for their aquaculture, and the residents have to purchase clean water to keep their fish alive. “Last month, my school spent around 400,000 rupiah (US$30) just to buy water,” he reported to The Guardian. “Now, fishermen looking for fish and shrimp in the water are having a hard time getting sufficient results. People don’t want to use the river water.”

Azis, a farmer, looks over the small fish pond he depends on for his aquaculture. The pond has been polluted by the coal dust and chemicals brought about by the coal mine operations in Santan Ilir village. Photo credit: Ardiles Rante

All the villagers depending on the river for their livelihoods from Santan Hulu, Santan Ilir, and Santan Tengah, have protested and brought their complaints to PT Indominco Mandiri about the river. “The company closes its eyes to the deteriorating quality of the Santan River. We have found documents showing that the company planned to divert the course of the river as part of a plan to increase the production of coal,” Iskandar said.

However, the outcry among the villagers and student activists have not been in vain, Andriyanu said. In February 2016, after years of petitioning the Ministry of Forests, the mining permit allowing operations to go on in local rivers were withdrawn and the provincial government acknowledged that it had “failed to protect [the] villagers.”

However, in spite of the win, the activists have amassed proof that PT Indominco Mandiri is carrying on with its plans to develop its mining operations on the banks of the Santan River, and verified by villagers and satellite imagery. When questioned, Andriyanu simply said, “That’s Indonesia! Coal mining companies have the ear of [the] local government; so many people are targeted by corruption in relation to coal mining. They are in good positions in the provincial government.”

In spite of the hardship and challenges, Iskandar has stated that residents of the villages cannot simply allow the river to become even more contaminated and polluted than it already is. “People will automatically lose their livelihoods – which is largely agricultural or from fishing and plantations that are dependent on the Santan River,” he explained.

We are miserable now,” Saharuddin added. “There is no longer any clean water.”

Source: The Guardian