The Citarum river near Jakarta in Indonesia, has the dubious honour of being the world's most polluted river. It was once a gently flowing river, where fishermen cast their nets, sea birds came to feed and the natural beauty of the area left visitors spellbound. Villagers collected water for their homes, and rice paddies thrived on its irrigation channels. Today, the Citarum is choked by the domestic waste of nine million people and the cast-off from hundreds of factories.
The refuse now covers the river like a carpet, and fishermen no longer scour the river for fish, but forage for rubbish they can salvage and trade—plastic bottles, cans, timber, anything. If they are lucky, they'll earn five dollars a week from their scavenge, but risk disease and death.
Apart from chemicals from factories, all kinds of human waste ends up in the river. There are no rubbish collection services or sewerage systems or treatment plants here. Everything goes into the river, and the filthy water is sucked into the rice paddies, while families risk their health by collecting it for drinking, cooking and washing.
The Citarum is just one example of the shocking abuse mankind has inflicted on our freshwater lakes and rivers, and there are examples anywhere you care to look, even in our westernized backyards.
We might have thought that after Erin Brockovich, factory pollution of water supplies would be a thing of the past, but not so. Dupont settled a law suit, without admitting responsibility, for polluting the Ohio river with chemicals that stay in the environment for up to two thousand years, and accumulate in the tissue of living things and beings, causing developmental and immunological problems.
But it is not just the chemical factories that are actively reducing our water supplies. We waste a lot of it with a mindset that water is free and freely available. Americans are the world's biggest consumers of water and water is now an emerging crisis in the USA.
Nature is also playing a role with more and more countries being declared arid. There are already 80 countries with serious water shortages and only 3% of the Earth's surface is freshwater. With six billion inhabitants, and as demand for water hits the limits of a finite supply, potential conflicts are brewing between nations that share freshwater reserves. More than 50 countries on five continents will be caught up in water disputes unless they can formalize agreements on how to share reservoirs, rivers and underground water aquifers.
Water is the new oil. No one will care about gold, resources or commodities because you can't stay alive drinking them. The nation that best protects its freshwater lakes and rivers will be the wealthiest, because well, they're alive for starters. And just as wars have started over oil, so we shall see a future where nations will fight for water.
In The Glass Table, twelve children are cast into a spell to live in the river Kai as spirits. When considering what their lives might be like, I researched the type of environmental issues that would affect a river in a place like Rumpole.