Behind the beautiful panorama of Mount Ijen, with one of the world’s largest craters, in Bondowoso, East Java, lies a health hazard to the surrounding community.
At least 50,000 people live in an area threatened by acidic water from the crater lake permeating through their wells.
Badawi, 45, a sulfur miner at the crater — better known as Kawah Ijen — savored a cup of coffee at a food stall in Paltuding village, Bondowoso regency, before setting off to work.
Beside his coffee cup stood a bottle of water from a well to drink on the 4-kilometer hike to collect sulfur from the crater.
“People say the well water is toxic because of acid from the lake. But most residents, including myself, don’t care about the effects of the water, as we have so far remained healthy,” he told The Jakarta Post recently.
Badawi from Bulusan village, Kalipuro district, Banyuwangi regency, has lived in a sulfur workers camp in Paltuding for five years, together with hundreds of sulfur miners.
Research conducted by Soegijapranata Catholic University, Semarang, Central Java, in 2007 showed that acid water in the crater lake had infiltrated and contaminated surrounding rivers and wells. As a result, local people were affected by tooth decay and bone degeneration, while agricultural production was reduced.
As many as 3,564 hectares of paddy fields have been irrigated with polluted water, affecting 50,000 villagers across three regencies.
A report from Soegijapranata University said that most residents around the Banyupahit and Banyuputih rivers had been informed of the dangers of contaminated water.
The study, which was supported by Holland’s Untrecht University, Netherlands Open University and the Vrije University of Amsterdam, showed that the acidic water of Kawah Ijen had caused many people to suffer from dental fluorosis, a condition caused by an excessive intake of fluoride in drinking water.
In a discussion at the 10 November Technology Institute of Surabaya (ITS), head of the Vulcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Center, Surono, said the consumption of lake water infiltrated through the wells caused abnormal human growth and shortened life expectancy. He made a recommendation to the East Java governor and local authorities to build a tunnel channeling the crater stream to the sea, 42 kilometers away. He has yet to receive a response.
For both local and foreign tourists, Kawah Ijen is a unique attraction. It is one of the few volcanoes in the country that has a crater lake. Of the country’s more than 700 mountains, only a small percentage have such lakes, including Mount Rinjani (3,726 meters above sea level) in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, and the Kelimutu range in Flores.
Visitors are prohibited from approaching the crater, where a lava dome has emerged as a “mini Kelud”, measuring 700 square meters, with a 130-meter diameter.
According to vulcanologists, the Kelud dome is a unique phenomenon in Indonesia’s volcanic history and still has the potential for a devastating eruption.
Kawah Ijen is easily accessible by motor vehicle — the best route is via Bondowoso and eastward through Wonosari to Sempol village and finally via Paltuding village. This route covers 70 kilometers of smooth asphalt roads. It can also be reached through the town of Banyuwangi — only 38 kilometers to the west of the villages of Licin, Jambu and Paltuding — but the roads are quite steep.
For a morning climb, tourists can spend the night at the coffee estate guest house of PTP Nusantara XII state company in Kalisat, Jampit, at an altitude of 1,200 meters. A tourist inn, Pondok Wisata, also offers accommodation in Paltuding, besides a camping ground. Masks, glasses and wet handkerchiefs are needed for protection against toxic fumes from the crater. By following the path worn down by sulfur miners, climbers will not get lost.
At the peak, a green crater can be observed at a height of 2,368 meters above sea level, with a total area of 5.5 hectares and caldera walls 300 to 500 meters high. The lake’s water, totaling 200 million cubic meters in volume, can reach 200 degrees centigrade. With a depth of 200 meters, the lake is so acidic that it can dissolve clothes and human fingers.