By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat

Although Indonesia’s water resources account for almost 6 percent of the world’s water or 21 percent of the Asia-Pacific region’s total water resources, the country faces a worsening crisis over access to clean water for its 266.7 million people.  

Part of the problem, critics say, was the 2004 passage of a national water resources law that appeared to put the interests of private enterprise water development companies over those of the government and the citizenry. Although the law was ordered annulled in 2015, the problems continue. 

The government under President Joko Widodo said it had allocated Rp16 trillion (US$1.163 billion for 2018 for sanitation infrastructure to manage waste water produced by 853,000 households and construct water treatment plants and clean water facilities.  With millions of households facing lacking safe water and adequate sanitation, that figure is grossly inadequate.

While per-capita Gross National Product has increased dramatically over the past two decades, development of safe water hasn’t kept up.  More than 27 million citizens lack safe water and 51 million lack adequate sanitation facilities according to the World Health Organization in 2016. The country has the second-highest number of people in the world after India who defecate in the open, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Diarrhea is a major health concern, responsible for 31 percent of post-neonatal mortality and 25 percent of child mortality overall.

The severity of the problem can be seen from the fact that Jakarta, the capital city, an agglomeration of 30 million people, has its own clean water crisis, exacerbated by careless garbage disposal and hit-and miss collection. Too often, garbage is merely dumped into the city’s nine major rivers by residents on the banks.  The city is sinking at a rate of 17.5 cm per year as wells draw down groundwater, meaning flooding from rising sea levels portends an inevitable crisis. Some of those rivers have turned almost into waste dumps despite efforts begun by the previus governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnomo, to clean them up. With his replacement as governor in a bitter election last year, it is feared that those efforts have flagged.

In Indonesia as a whole, an estimated 60 percent of the rivers, especially in Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Sulawesi, are polluted by wastes ranging from organic materials to bacteria coliform and fecal coli, which are the causes of diarrhea.  

Limited land is widely used for construction of residential, office, and other buildings. Illegal logging reduces soil absorption, resulting in a lack of clean water intake. In fact, clean water needs in Jakarta in 2017 reached 28 cu m per second but currently are only fulfilled at 18 cu m per second. Jakarta’s water supply needs in 2030 are projected at3 41.6 cu m per second.

While this condition is a dilemma for common individuals, it has given big opportunities for businesses, who see opportunity in crisis. Weak investment in government water systems has meant that piped water is almost universally undrinkable in most parts of the country, with residents mostly dependent on bottled or boiled water although according to UNESCO, even most of the boiled water sampled still contains fecal material.   

The situation has been made worse by the commercialization of water, which the critics lay at the feet of the 2004 legislation. There has been a growing rise of various brands of clean drinking water or bottled drinking water, known by Indonesian language initials AMDK. With little public trust in government to provide clean water, an increasing number of people have turned to concerns such as the French company Danone, which according to Eve Warburton in a study for Columbia University’s Earth Institute, dominates the Indonesian market, accounting for around 60 percent of all bottled water sales with its majority-owned Aqua brand. However, Nestle, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo and a host of small local companies have invaded the market, offering more competitive prices although Aqua-Danone, according to Warburton, controls 11 springs and 15 factories.

To date, there were more than 413 listed water companies with a production capacity of 10 billion liters per year in 2012.  In 2013, sales reached 20.3 billion liters per year and in 2014 rose to 24 billion liters. Drinking water businesses in Indonesia is very tempting, as the consumption of AMDK increases 11-12 percent per year.

This commercialization of water has had a spreading environmental effect as well. Aqua bottles so much water that farmers in West Java complain that aquifer levels have been significantly depleted. 

The emergence of the now-repealed Law No. 7 of 2004 on Water Resources remains the basis of community rejection, with critics calling for a solution that would include ensuring the availability of clean water which can be used for everyday purposes, such as drinking, bathing, washing laundry, and other necessities. Such efforts would also help to resolve other problems in the country including health problems. 

Whether that can be done is problematical. The government has shown little tendency to act against individuals and entities who since the passage of the law 14 years ago have become a powerful lobbying force. Nonetheless, if the country is to make meaningful strides in cleaning up its water, it faces not only minimizing the commercialization of water resources, but also resolving other problems such as environmental degradation.  Doing so means betting into the hand of powerful forces. It is saddening to see a country with almost 6 percent of the world’s water resources having a perpetual water crisis.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat writes regularly on Indonesian social problems