How to Spruce Up for Asian Games? Cover a Polluted River

Workers installing nets to cover the “Black River” near the Asian Games athletes’ village in Jakarta, Indonesia, in July.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — With thousands of Asia’s top athletes preparing to descend on the Indonesian capital for the start of the 2018 Asian Games this weekend, city officials were in crisis mode about a heavily polluted river behind the athletes’ village.

After an emergency dredging and water purification project was deemed infeasible, officials came up with a plan to fix their river problem that would impress David Copperfield: They hid it.

Last month, workers erected a half-mile black nylon net covering the “kali item,” or Black River, a local nickname for the polluted waterway. For good measure, they laid rows of lights across the cover, creating a festive — albeit slightly perverse — evening light show.

Clogged with decades of garbage, the river, officially the Sentiong, is one of the most polluted of Jakarta’s 13 rivers and canals. The nearly stagnant water beneath the new net looks more like a tar pit, and releases a gag-inducing smell.

Residents of a slum next to the river, their nostrils by now immune to the foul stench, say they are not bothered by it but can understand the government’s logic in hiding it.

“We want the athletes to enjoy being in Jakarta,” said Jazuli, 31, who works for a local snack distributor. Like many Indonesians, Mr. Jazuli has only one name. “We don’t want them to see the river and say, ‘What in the name of God is that?’”

Hiding a river is one of countless Band-Aids that the Jakarta city government and Asian Games organizers have applied to cover up the blemishes of this city of more than 10 million people. The Games, held every four years, draw 17,000 athletes, coaches and officials and are a chance for host countries to showcase their major cities.

In efforts to ensure that the Games go off without a hitch, the authorities are sprucing up the city and cracking down on crimes from pocket-picking to terrorism.

Gray concrete bridges have been painted in bright colors, Games-inspired murals by local artists adorn previously spooky highway underpasses, and construction sites across the city were enclosed within tall wooden fences with posters of the Games’ official mascots.

The authorities also expanded efforts to reduce traffic during the Games, which run from Saturday to Sept. 2, by ordering vehicles off the roads on certain days based on their license plate numbers.

The city has also deployed an army of street sweepers to spruce up the city, planted sports-themed gardens along major thoroughfares, and widened pedestrian sidewalks near event venues.

“Jakarta is facing a lot of pollution problems,” said Erick Thohir, a prominent Indonesian businessman and chairman of the country’s organizing committee. “The Asian Games are not just about sporting events. It promotes our culture.”

He said hiding the river’s sludge was “a quick solution,” but noted that the Indonesian capital faces significant pollution challenges in the future.

“It’s about discipline,” Mr. Thohir said. “Everyone wants clean streets and air, but everyone throws their garbage into the river.”

Jakarta also has a problem with “thieves and street robbers,” according to the police, who launched a massive crackdown ahead of the Games.

Human rights groups have denounced a new government new policy in which the police were ordered to shoot anyone who resisted arrest.

According to Amnesty International, in July and August, the police have fatally shot 15 people and wounded 41 others in Jakarta and in Palembang, in South Sumatra Province, the other city in which events will be held.

The police have also arrested at least 283 people on terrorism-related charges since May, following suicide bombings in East Java and an attack on a police station in Central Sumatra carried out by Indonesian sympathizers of the Islamic State.

Indonesia has been the site of numerous attacks by Islamist terrorists, including hotel bombings in 2003 and 2009 in Jakarta and attacks on a police post in the city center in 2016. Officials are determined not to let an attack occur during the Games.

According to Amnesty International, the police have charged 170 people arrested in the recent crackdown, but the legal status of another 113 detainees remains unclear.

“We are calling on the police to come clean on the arrests,” said Haeril Halim, a spokesman for Amnesty International Indonesia. “Without accountability, the process could potentially be tainted by human rights violations.”

Back at the Black River, Teguh Prasetyo, 24, who works at a restaurant specializing in traditional meatball soup, said he was not worried about security for the Games — or that the river’s smell might reach the athletes’ village.

“The smell is much better than before, and the village has tall buildings,” Mr. Teguh said.

In fact, he said he hoped the city would keep the cover in place permanently in a bid to fight pollution, not just hide it.

“It’s actually stopped people from throwing trash into the river,” he said. “At night, many people come to this area to eat, drink, smoke and hang out. And they just throw all their garbage in.”

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