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Stories Asia

Restoring the environment

Planting trees, saving a river, protecting livelihoods

Developing AI and IoT solutions to help clean up one of the world’s most polluted waterways

According to ancient lore, magical beings once kept the Citarum River clean, safe, and sustainable for villagers on the Indonesian island of Java. Among them was Raden Kalung Bimanagara – a golden-faced half-man, half-snake figure who punished those who fouled its waters.

What would Raden Kalung think today?

The waterway he once protected has been choked with garbage and industrial waste, making it one of the world’s most polluted rivers. Swaths of lush jungle, essential to the health of the river basin’s tropical ecosystem, have been cut down and replaced by poorly managed plantation farming.

Just like their ancestors, millions of people still rely on the Citarum despite the pollution. And, many now hope that data and new digital technologies – like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) – can help do what the old spirits once did and bring one of Southeast Asia’s most important rivers back to life.

Relying on the river

Dedi, a farmer who like many Indonesians uses only one name, has been working a small patch of rice paddies upstream for 28 years. For a long time, he didn’t realize how polluted and damaged the river had become. Now he worries for his crops, his family, and his community.

“People here depend on the Citarum for their everyday needs,” he says. “But the water quality is changing. It causes health issues, especially for the skin, like itching.”

Modern Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation and a fast-rising star in the global race for economic growth. Its progress, while impressive, has come at a cost.

Rapid industrialization and booming urbanization have taken a massive toll on the environment across many parts of the sprawling archipelago. One of the worst-hit areas has been the Citarum river system.

It flows 297-kilometers (185 miles) down from West Java’s cloud-shrouded highlands near Mount Wayang and winds north to the sea, just east of Jakarta – Indonesia’s desperately overcrowded capital.

For years, unchecked toxic run-off from textile plants and other factories along its banks have poisoned the river.

Nearly 60 percent of its fish species appear to have died out, and lead levels have been measured at 1,000 times above U.S. safety standards.

But even its degraded state, the river remains crucial to today’s Indonesia. Its three dams supply water to almost 20 million people in West Java province and more than 10 million in Jakarta.

Around 42,000 hectares (104,000 acres) of farmland, 3,000 factories, and several  hydroelectric plants rely on its water.

With so much at stake, and so much to gain, recently re-elected President Joko Widodo has ordered a massive clean-up. He wants water from the Citarum to be safe to drink by 2025.

To help get this done, he has ordered thousands of troops to clear the garbage and replant the forests. More trees will help filter runoff that makes its way into the river and reduce carbon in the air.

Developing AI and IoT Solutions

Residents and environmentalists have applauded the president’s plan and are now accessing digital solutions to measure, monitor, and support its progress.

One of these solutions is – a tree management system that uses IoT and AI technologies to collect and analyze ecological data.

Created in partnership with packaged drinking water company, Danone-AQUA , runs in the cloud on Microsoft Azure. It sends information on carbon absorption to forest managers and government regulators.

It also predicts and calculates other environmental impacts of tree planting, such as water infiltration.

The application, which is in ongoing development, includes image mapping and identification programs, and other data collection abilities. An intuitive reporting dashboard presents real-time information and analysis of reforestation efforts.

Smartphone chatbot

And, it is accessible so that local communities can find information via a user-friendly AI-powered smartphone chatbot named ‘Jaki.’

“The data and analysis are always up-to-date. It makes the data collection process measurable, well-reported, and verified,” says Tito Pratiko, a product advisor for “The technology is still under development and is not limited to anyone who wants to contribute and monitor.”

Danone-AQUA has been delivering healthy hydration to millions of Indonesians since it was founded in 1973.

With an estimated two-thirds of the nation’s 269 million citizens still lacking easy access to safe drinking water, supporting the clean-up of the Citarum and the reforestation of its catchment has become a signature sustainability project for the company.

“The Citarum case is unique because many people, even those who live miles away in Jakarta, depend on the river,” says Karyanto Wibowo, who is the Sustainable Development Director at Danone-AQUA.

Its partnership with is also helping its production facilities produce zero net carbon emissions.

Under Danone-AQUA’s corporate social responsibility initiative, every new tree planted in the Mount Wayang area is marked with a QR code medallion made from used water bottles. The codes can be read with a smartphone, making it easy to monitor the amount of carbon being reduced as each tree grows.

Restoring forests around Mount Wayang is a natural way to boost water quality for the river. And, authorities and Danone-AQUA expect it will also mitigate the dangers of floods and landslides.

Raden Kalung would be pleased.