Sat, 15 May 2004

Bad smell in N. Jakarta

The death of thousands of fish in Jakarta Bay reminds us of Minamata disease, a pollution-induced disease officially identified in Minamata Bay, Japan, in May 1956. Minamata disease is the familiar name given to mercury toxicosis, which was first found in people who had consumed contaminated seafood from Minamata Bay, where methyl mercury was dumped into the sea. Methyl mercury is a byproduct derived from the processing of acetaldehyde, which in this case was carried out by the Chisso Company Ltd., an industrial undertaking in Minamata, a town that was home to some 34,000 people.

While the current case of pollution in Jakarta Bay may not be as serious as the Minamata calamity, it is nevertheless essential that it serves as a wake-up call to the people of Jakarta and their administrators. It is, therefore, interesting to read North Jakarta Mayor Effendy Anas' statement that the death of thousands of fish and clams in Jakarta Bay was due to a "common practice" of fishermen there. The dead fish were dumped back into the water by the fishermen after they had caught bigger fish, the mayor said, arguing that the fish population in the bay is thriving.

Things could not be more simple for the mayor despite the fact that the livelihoods of fishermen have been decimated after the deaths of so many fish and clams last Saturday along the North Jakarta coast near Ancol. To make matters worse, the mayor also said that there was no problem in the bay since as fish released there on Thursday had survived.

The inescapable question that this argument raises is: Does the mayor mean to close this case with his statements? Or does he want to demonstrate that he, being the man in power, can do no wrong? Or could it possibly be that the mayor is trying to evade responsibility after having failed to protect the bay from industrial pollution? Governor Sutiyoso, however, has confirmed that the fish and clams died from pollution, and has asked people not to consume fish caught in the bay until the problem has been dealt with.

But neither Effendy Anas nor Sutiyoso are environmentalists with sufficient expertise in matters concerning marine pollution. They are officials who, like so many other officials in this country, are prone to making promises and rhetorical statements that lack any substance. And the fact that the statements made by the two officials are very much at odds is proof, if any were needed, that their statements are little more than pious utterances from on high.

Another interesting point to note is the sluggishness of the Jakarta administration in determining what really caused the fish kill. The Jakarta Environmental Management Agency (BPLHD) has yet to complete its investigation, but earlier the agency's head, Kosasih Wirahadikusumah, said that samples of water taken from the bay contained excessive levels of mercury and ammonia.

Unlike the administration, which normally appears reticent about doing anything to counter pollution, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) has pointed the finger at five manufacturing plants situated on the coast. Walhi's Selamet Daroyni said in a press release that there were strong indications that these plants had discharged untreated hazardous waste into the sea. Walhi has also accused the Jakarta administration of lacking seriousness in tackling environmental issues.

So far, what has happened in Jakarta Bay has hurt not only the fishermen, but also seafood restaurants. Local fishermen have complained about a serious decline in their catches since last week. One fisherman said on Wednesday that normally he could catch about 10 kilograms of shrimp a day. However, he says the most he has caught recently is five shriveled shrimps. An owner of a restaurant in the Ancol recreation park said that reservations had been canceled due to reports about the fish poisoning.

It should by now be obvious that what happened in Jakarta Bay is a disaster that needs prompt and effective handling. A preliminary analysis conducted by the Office of the State Minister for Research and Technology and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) found that high levels of ammonia in the sea might be due to an outbreak red tide. Obviously, to accuse the fishermen of dumping dead fish into the sea, as the North Jakarta mayor blatantly did, is to spread disinformation and confusion among the public.

Despite the continuing possibility that what has happened is the result of a natural phenomenon, the presence of excessive levels of mercury in Jakarta Bay could mean that this particular case of pollution is the product of both irresponsible business practices -- giving priority to production and ignoring environmental health -- and the government's policy of promoting industry at any cost.

Society, therefore, needs to be made aware that any business that destroys the environment must be made to compensate the victims, and to clean up the mess it has caused. We don't need empty promises and statements. It would also be best for officials to refrain from making misleading statements or telling downright lies, as they are so often wont to do.

The best thing to do now is to leave the problem to independent experts and environmentalists, who are free from the pressure of government officials -- for whatever reason such pressure might be brought to bear. This is also the proper time for higher education and scientific institutes to join hands in clearing up the issue and recommending measures to prevent further disastrous outbreaks of pollution in the future. And if scientific analysis should find that industrial waste is the cause of the pollution in Jakarta Bay, then obviously the city administration must ensure that the culprits are punished to the full extent of the law.