February 8, 2021

How a red flood in Pekalongan reveals many issues, but blames Batik

While Europe was getting ready for a snowstorm, news came in from Indonesia that the streets in Pekalongan were flooded with red coloured water. The first images appeared online on Twitter with messages about 'the end of days'. After warnings about this 'Fake news', different news platforms started to share the story under titles like 'Indonesian village turns red as floods hit batik-manufacturing hub', 'Felrode overstroming bij Indonesisch dorp met batik-fabriek' and 'A surreal blood red river inundated the Indonesian village of Jenggot after floods hit a nearby batik factory on Saturday'. The news is not Fake, however how it is told, who is to blame and how it is combined with other news, is very interesting and worrying. In this post we take a closer look at how a 'bloodred coloured flood' reveals many issues and how fingers are pointed at the wrong 'bad guy'.

The first I heard about it was through a Whatsapp from someone in Singapore on Saturday afternoon. Soon after that message, many people started posting about it online and one after another mediaplatform brought this "news". It was mostly the same text and video from Twitter:
A surreal, blood-red river inundated the Indonesian village of Jenggot after floods hit a nearby batik factory on Saturday, causing a frenzy on social media.
"I am so afraid if this photo gets into the bad hands of hoax spreaders," said a Twitter user Ayah E Arek-Arek. "Fear mongering narratives about signs that it is the end of the world, bloody rain, etc."
Pekalongan is a city known for manufacturing batik, a traditional Indonesian method of using wax to resist water-based dyes to depict patterns and drawings, usually on fabric.
It is not uncommon for rivers in Pekalongan to turn different colours. Bright green water covered another village north of the city during a flood last month.
"Sometimes there are purple puddles on the road too," said Twitter user Area Julid, who claimed to be from the area.
The head of Pekalongan disaster relief, Dimas Arga Yudha, confirmed that the photos being circulated were real.
"The red flood is due to the batik dye, which has been hit by the flood. It will disappear when it mixes with rain after a while," he said.
Less than a month ago, two large landslides hit a village in Indonesia's West Java province, destroying property and killing at least 13 people.
Thousands of users on Twitter shared photos and videos of the village south of Pekalongan city in Central Java being flooded by crimson-coloured water, which some social media users said reminded them of blood.
(source: Article 
Flooding turns Indonesian village waters red with factory dye on CBC News, 6 February 2021)

Pekalongan is a city known for manufacturing batik, a traditional Indonesian method of using wax to resist water-based dyes to depict patterns and drawings, usually on fabric

Soon I read in comments that it was not a Batikworkshop, but most likely a textile printing factory. On Facebook the owner of a well-known Batikworkshop in Pekalongan posted that we shouldn't believe the story that it is a Batik Tulis workshop that is responsible. She states that the coloured water is clearly from a textile printing factory who create imitation, so Fake Batik, or that it is waste from the local Jeans factory. She continues that we should work on solving this problem together, referring to the floods that happen every raining season in Pekalongan. And ends her post with "Close the bad factories!"

It is not the first time that bright coloured water near and in Pekalongan is said to be caused by the 'Big Batik industry'. In the Summer of 2019, in the dry season, the rivers in Pekalongan also turned red. In an article from July the Health Service checks the water, saying it turned red from dyes from Batikworkshops and that it is not clear yet if it is unsafe or not. A month later an article got published with the following statement:
According to the Head of the Health Service, synthetic dyes used in the batik coloring process contain various heavy metals, such as chromium (Cr), cadmium (Cd) and other heavy metals," he explained to Tribunjateng.com, Tuesday (6/8/2019).
The heavy metal threatening the health of humans who live in locations contaminated with waste such as Pekalongan City.
"Although there have been no reports of chronic health cases due to batik waste, pollution still threatens health. It can even cause various chronic diseases if heavy metals are absorbed by the body in the long term" he said.
(source: "Masyarakat Kota Pekalongan Diintai Penyakit Kronis dari Limbah Batik"("Pekalongan City Community Stalked by Chronic Disease from Batik Waste", August 2019 )

So Batikworkshops are the bad guys, or are they... All the articles on the 'bloodred coloured flood' never mention Batikworkshops, but call them factories or textile printing factories. On one hand it is a clear case of not knowing what Batik actually is. Not being aware that actual Batik is generally made in a small scale handmade production. Even if it is a bigger workshop, it cannot be compared with a textile factory. Especially the textile factories that produce Fast Fashion. To give a better idea about the scale of the textile factories compared to the Batikworkshops, I found this great thesis! Here is a little part on the specific textile industry in Pekalongan:
Manufacturing contributed one fifth (20 percent) of the total GPRD in Pekalongan between 2008 and 2010; the contribution was a bit higher (23 percent in 2008 and 23.6 percent in 2010). Textile production and the packaging of fish are the two main activities in the manufacturing sector. Textiles include the industrial production of cloth printed with batik motifs (i.e. sarong and slendang) and garments, using automatic and modern looms. According to statistical data of Pekalongan city and Pekalongan District, in 2010 there were at least 24 textile factories located in the city and district of Pekalongan. (...) Export from Pekalongan (both from the city and from the Pekalongan districts) consists mostly of these textile products—garments, printed sarongs with batik motifs and palekat sarongs.
The small-scale traditional batik industry which I focus upon is not included in the statistics. The category of textile production (i.e. manufacture) never includes batik. (...) It was dificult for me to collect official data on batik production, as the industry is mostly home-based, consisting of typically one to four workers, and businesses are not always stable: during the peak season they exist, during the slack season many disappear.
Footnote: The word batik in this thesis refers to any textile with a batik pattern and to the technique of manual production. In this way I take the deinition of local batik producers as leading. The traditional batik producers do not regard the machine-based production as batik. However, statistics do not differentiate between printed and hand-made batik and classify most traditional batik production under trade.
(source:  Thesis 'Business and politics in provincial Indonesia: The batik and construction sector in Pekalongan, Central Java' by Savirani, A., 2015)

Map of Jenggot region, see border in red. The bright red line is the street Jalan Pelita III were the redblood flood was. The light and dark blue line are the rivers going through this area. And below you see three stars with red circles, these are the Textile factories

It is not uncommon for rivers in Pekalongan to turn different colours. Bright green water covered another village north of the city during a flood last month

A few years ago I read an article (sorry, can't find it at the moment) that was about the water in the Kali Pekalongan, the main river, that often turns bright blue, or purple or red. It again pointed fingers to 'the Big Batik Factories', but it was also mentioned it was most likely to come from the jeans factory located near the river. 
Java has one of the most polluted rivers in the World, Citarum River. It is in West-Java right next to Jakarta heading towards Bandung. If you look up images of this river, it is just clear horror. Next to mountains of trash, toxic chemicals are dumped in this river. According to Greenpeace it is dumped by textile factories that produce Fast Fashion for the Western market. Near and in Pekalongan, as mentioned above, are also textile factories. 

The greencoloured flood that happened about a month ago is mentioned in most news-articles. A shocking photo that got shared on social media shows all the different colours the water has had this year alone!! It includes the green in Degayu. This region of Pekalongan is located on the coast. After searching online, I found out that the green was not caused by any dye or waste, but by 'mata lele', Duckweed. Duckweeds can double their mass in between 16 hours to 2 days under optimal nutrient availability, sunlight and water temperature. So the flooded area in Degayu turned bright green because of a natural phenomenon!

"The red flood is due to the batik dye, which has been hit by the flood. 
It will disappear when it mixes with rain after a while"


A video posted on Radar Pekalongan shows the police giving a short statement about the red coloured flood. They are showing bags of what seems to be synthetic red fabric dye. They refer to it as Warna Batik and explain there were many plastic bags found. They think this is the source of the red colour. He explains how one kilo can already colour the water bright red. This is true, because when I dye Batiks myself 50 grams is more then enough to colour a bucket of 10 liters of water bright red. I was also thinking about the dye seller I visited in October 2019 in Pekalongan. The shop called 'Jerman' specialised in synthetic dyes, hence the name 'Jerman' which refers to Germany that exported the first synthetic dyes to Indonesia. I bought some powders for an installation I was going to make for the Batik Week celebrations. The shop was filled with bags, big and small piled up on the tiled floor. If a flood would hit a place like this, I am sure the whole of Pekalongan would look like a rainbow.

Photo I took in October 2019 at the textile dye shop Jerman in Pekalongan (ID)

As far as I can tell they do not mention clearly if the dyes in fact came from a Batikworkshop. However in the description under the YouTube video the street is mentioned, Jalan Pelita III. So this morning I picked up my yellow friend in Google maps and walked through this street. If you never 'berjalan-jalan' in Street-view, I can highly recommend it. The street is indeed filled with all kind of places with a sign with 'Batik' in their name, but none specify that they make handwritten Batik. To my surprise Street-view captured a visual story that includes imitations hanging out to dry (or an actual Batikmaker just finished 30 identical Batiks, not very likely), actual screen-print screens standing in front of a house that are known to be used for, again, imitation batik. Some Tie-dye laying to dry on the grass, a motorcycled packed with piles of printed textiles with a Batik motif and much, much more, have a look:

Less than a month ago, two large landslides hit a village in Indonesia's West Java province, destroying property and killing at least 13 people

Apart from the coloured water, what actually causes these floods? It is a combination of factors, with many human factors that could be resolved. Climate change causes the weather to become more extreme. On Java an extreme hot dry season is now followed by an intense wet season. It rains more, harder and longer. Many places on Java have problems with drainages. Litter and lack of maintenance easily turn streets into rivers in minutes. I have experienced this when I was on Java in 2016. It was crazy to sit on the back of Barbara's scooter, just stopping to put on a raincoat, and moments later be on a full river which was a road before. I never experienced the floods in Pekalongan, lucky me, but every year the timelines are filled with the rising water. Museum Batik gets flooded almost every year, more than once and now has 5 centimeters of water indoors. 
Next to these factors, there are other factors that make the floods even more dangerous. Landslides also occur regularly on Java. Most are followed after heavy rain. Because of deforestation, clear-cutting, mining & quarrying and construction activities, there is little natural protection left. 
In the amazing film 'Tanah Ibu Kami' ("Our Mother's land") this is one of the subjects discussed. A true must see movie, go watch it now (after reading my post)!

Cover of thesis 'Awareness of Environmental Impacts of Batik Industry
A case study of Central Java, Indonesia' 
by Jenna Sanders, 2020, 
with detail of a Batik by Mak Sium, Batang (ID)
Last year I contributed to a thesis research on the environmental impacts of the Batik Industry. I told Jenna Sanders I was happy to provide info and images like the cover photo. I also told her that although the Batik industry can do with many improvements, focussing on them distracts from the harm the big industries in Indonesia cause. 
By now again pointing the finger to Batik, it shows how little aware we are of the impact of actual factories, the impact of Fast Fashion and the impact of climate change. This recent news might leave people with the idea they can better not buy Batik, because it is clearly harmful for its surroundings. And there is truth in this, as is brought forward in this post, but it totally goes past the general "not taking care of water pollution" in Indonesia. We can not blame Batik for what is happening in Pekalongan. While one street was red, the whole city was flooded with brownish mud-like water. I hope this post gives a better insight in what the actual story is and how we should really reclaim the term Batik. Let's call Fake Batik what it is, Fast Fashion, and let's think about how we can solve the many water issues (floods/pollution/lack of clean drinking water) Pekalongan is facing. Ayo!