Dec 02, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Down by the riverside - Kali Ciliwung

Down by the riverside - Kali Ciliwung
Published: Apr 05, 2009

Photo-essay: some of Jakarta’s poorest inhabitants find both suffering and happiness on the banks of its main river

Henri Ismail

Among Indonesians, Jakarta is famous for its shiny, high rise buildings and luxury malls. But it is also famous for its slums. Bukit Duri, through which the Ciliwung River runs, is one of them.

The Ciliwung River is the longest and the most polluted river in Jakarta. Migrants to the city live cheek by jowl along its banks. They live in very poor and unhygienic conditions.

Many of these migrants pay Rp.1,500 (US$0.13) per night to rent modified basements along the riverbank. One room is typically shared by many people, all using the same space to sleep, pray and eat.

Most of the migrants who live on the Ciliwung’s banks have come to look for work in Jakarta. Some are jobless but many of them scrape together a living selling items on the street. Some sell small household goods, others sell fresh produce. From this they can earn between Rp.30,000 (US$2.60) and Rp.100,000 (US$8.70) per day.

Others make a living collecting garbage from the river, which they can sell. Garbage recyclers generally earn between Rp.10,000 (US$0.87) and Rp.20,000 ($US1.74) per day, depending on what they can gather from the river. It is a good day for garbage recycler if the river turns up iron or aluminium.

Some of the people who live here come from West Java, two to four hours away by road. Others come from Central or East Java, eight to twelve hours by train. Mostly, they only stay a few weeks on the Ciliwung before returning home. But they almost always plan to return, and spend their lives moving back and forth between their home villages and Jakarta.

The images in this photo essay take us into the lives of some of Bukit Duri’s inhabitants.

   A young girl nursing a baby walks by as images of the president of Indonesia and the governor of Jakarta
   look out over the Ciliwung River

   Access to clean water is very difficult. Many people use hand-pumps to get groundwater which may be
   less contaminated than the river

   Local women taking a break from household duties

   Outside school hours, young girls enjoy hanging out playing a jumping rope game

   Teenagers hanging out together. The average level of education in this area is senior high school or lower

   Pumping water outside their semi permanent house under a bridge

   Access to clean water is difficult. Many use water from the river for bathing, cleaning teeth, and for other needs

   Away from the grubby banks, they use long bamboo rafts as platforms for washing clothes

   A man collects garbage from the river to recycle it for a few rupiah

   A garbage collector inflates his truck tyre inner-tube. He uses this inflatable raft to drift in the river while he
   fishes out items from the water

   Drifting in the river, he collects garbage to recycle. For many, this is the only way to earn enough to survive

   At various points along the Ciliwung, getek (rope-hauled punts) ferry the locals back and forth across the river.
   Elsewhere, ropes over the river also allow the multi-purpose long bamboo rafts to ferry people across

   With seasonal floods, both the Ciliwung River and groundwater from hand-pumps become freshly contaminated

   Two boys in a flooded Bukit Duri classroom during the rainy season. The young are more
   vulnerable to waterborne diseases

   Cramped in her temporary home under a bridge

   Down on his luck: a homeless man in a rough shelter

   Some people build semi-permanent tents along the wall to sleep in. They have to pay illegal rent for this space
   to a local bureaucrat

The banks of the Ciliwung, where I started taking photographs in 2007, are places of extreme poverty. But the people there have a warmth and friendliness. Their communities seem so very alive to me, and this is what keeps drawing me back to photograph them.     ii

Henry Ismail ( was born in Jakarta. He studied political science at graduate level. He learned photography through night classes at Cultureel Centrum TU Delft, The Netherlands and by attending several workshops in The Netherlands, Spain and Indonesia.

See also H Angga Indraswara's Water woes

All photos in this essay are by Henri Ismail

Inside Indonesia 95: Jan-Mar 2009

Latest Articles

Feminists and LGBT


Can they work together? Religious objections make it hard

Concerts for cash

Oct 27, 2023 - MICHAEL H. B. RADITYA

Indonesia has a plan to boost the economy through large-scale arts, cultural and sporting events, but are they ready?

Healing the nation? Part 2

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Healing the nation? Part 1

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.