The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, September 01, 2006


THE CURSE OF KAWAH IJEN © Duncan Graham 2006

Got a problem with polluted water? Seek the factory. Search for the clear- felled land. Or a toxic dump.

Human-made causes. All fixable given cash and political will.

But what happens when the source of the pollution is natural, never-ending and gargantuan?

That’s the situation in the north-east corner of East Java where the seeping crater of the Kawah Ijen volcano is poisoning the waters used by 50,000 people for drinking and bathing, and scalding their irrigated crops.

The water is hyper-acidic, saturated with almost all known minerals. Its long-term effects on the people are not known, but 90 per cent have black teeth. The condition is caused by an excess of fluoride, a compound added in tiny doses to the water supplies of many Western nations to reduce tooth decay.

Skin and eye problems are also encountered. These are easily seen. What’s happening to the bones and brains? Are any of the minerals retained in the body? More study is needed to reveal the other effects.

The crater lake, one of the biggest in the world, holds about 36 million cubic metres of water. It’s about 200 metres deep and the water temperature varies between 20 and 40 degrees C. Although regularly replenished by rain, this is no diluent. Gasses burping from the bowels of the earth through the water like bubbles in a fizzy drink create extreme pollution.

About 50 litres a second leaks from the crater into the Banyupahit-Banyuputih (bitter and white) River. This flows down to Asembagus on the Straits of Madura. Here more than 3,500 hectares of rich land are irrigated from the dammed river.

The favored crop is rice – but this is acid-sensitive. Around 70 per cent of plantings fail. Sugar cane is more tolerant but far less profitable.

The water exceeds all standards for irrigation and drinking. No fish skim the waterways, no riparian reeds whisper in the breeze. This is a brook that babbles death – toxicity on a grand scale.

What’s to be done? After a seminar in Surabaya earlier this month (Aug) involving local and Dutch experts, and attended by about 85 people The Jakarta Post canvassed solutions:


According to Indonesian government vulcanologist and geochemist Sri Sumarti the problem was identified almost a century ago. In 1921 the Dutch built a sluice near the outfall. When the lake was full the gate was lowered and excess water flushed out to sea after downstream farmers were alerted.

“The crater lake last overflowed in 1976,” she said. “The sluice has been renovated since then and could be used but that solution is no longer appropriate.

“We don’t know why the lake levels are decreasing but its probably seepage through the porous ground. The level is now 15 to 20 metres below the sluice.”

Dr Manfren van Bergen from the University of Utrecht said the Dutch started watching volcanoes seriously and keeping records of activity after 1918. That was when Kelud exploded killing about 5,000 people near Kediri in central East Java.

That volcano also had a crater lake, and the fountain of hot mud and rock devastated 15,000 hectares of good land.

“After Independence the Dutch were unwelcome for a while, but the records of volcanic activity were preserved in Holland,” he said. “Long term information is critical in forecasting events.”

Now international relationships have improved, the old statistics are available and more than Euro 600,000 (Rp 7 billion) has been allocated to research on Kawah Ijen.

The money has been spent on projects leading to the Surabaya seminar and emphasising the hazards.


During and after the workshop, which was also attended by affected farmers and government officials, some obvious and imaginative proposals were made:

The big engineering project response was rapidly demolished. It would take at least 55 kilometres of piping to drain the lake and send the water to the sea. The pipes would have to be made of acid-proof materials. There were no engineers or economists present to put a rupiah tag on that notion, but all reckoned the figures would be stratospheric.

Diluting the acid is also a no-no. This would take mountains of limestone, and even then the gasses would continue to percolate according to Dr Ansje Lohr from the Netherlands Open University.

She’s been involved in a survey of 23 villages in the area. This found only a “partial awareness” of the problem – despite the black teeth and the sulphur-yellow water. Surprisingly many said the water was not distasteful – maybe because it’s all they’ve ever drunk.

Few were aware that the problem was the crater-lake, and those who did thought a return to the Dutch flushing solution should be tried. They didn’t know the lake level had dropped.

Even families who bought drinking water or who had an uncontaminated well were still affected by swallowing water while bathing.

“There are many unanswered questions because there’s been little research,” Dr Lohr said. “Cattle graze the area, so will bakso (meat balls) made from the beef be contaminated? And what about vegetables and cereals grown with the acid water? We don’t know.

“Most farmers depend on irrigated water. They want to grow rice, but most of it dies. The people are getting really poor.”


The priority, according to Dr Budi Widianarko from Soegijapranata Catholic University in Semarang, is to get clean drinking water to the villagers.

“We can’t handle the two issues of public health and finding a long term answer simultaneously,” he said. “Access to safe water is critical. Any new wells must be free from future contamination. Solutions for agriculture are more complicated.

“The pollution is causing more and more problems, economically, socially and in people’s physical and mental health.”

Dr Budi forecast that in the long run government subsidies would have to be paid if people were to stay in the area.

These could make up the difference between profit from a rice crop and a cane harvest so farmers would concentrate on producing sugar.

But should the people remain? If the risks to their well being are acute, the impact on health unknown and the chances of making a good living remote, then maybe the long-term solution is to relocate the farmers and abandon the land.


Because the waters are full of minerals could these be extracted and sold? Geoscientist Dr Thom Bogaard from Utrecht University thought gypsum could be recovered, but again the cost might exceed the value of the mineral.

“More research is required,” he said. “This isn’t just important for Kawah Ijen but all volcanoes in Indonesia as people move higher and higher to make a living. About ten per cent have acid lakes.

“The danger is that one solution could create another problem. Any answer has to be sustainable.”

The hot turquoise waters in the caldera don’t deter tourists – with the French particularly enthusiastic. The acid river also flows through the Baluran National Park. What’s the impact on the wildlife? Again the same answer: We don’t know.

Maybe crop growing should be forgotten and visitors farmed. That would mean extensive upgrading of facilities. It takes six hours by bus and foot to reach the crater from Banyuwangi which is enough to deter all but the most determined.

What happens next? That’s up to the national, regional and local governments as they study the findings of the Surabaya seminar. Anticipate more talkfests.

There’s another scenario that’s beyond all the planning and report writing. Kawah Ijen is dormant – not dead. If it explodes again all the puny attempts by humans to control nature will vanish in a hail of volcanic ash and storms of acid water.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 September 2006. )



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