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When waterworks don't work

Publication Date : 04-01-2013


The travel information that tour operators issue may not always be accurate or even particularly useful. But in the case of Indonesia, there is at least one area where the advice given out should be taken very seriously.

As one online travel advisory puts it: "While Jakarta may be an interesting and exciting place to visit, please do not be too adventurous with (drinking) water."

Ignoring such advice in Singapore or even Malaysia may not present much of a problem. In Indonesia, however, it could have serious consequences.

Health Ministry officials estimate that about 30 per cent of the piped water in the country is contaminated. And while most Indonesians avoid drinking water directly from the tap, preferring bottled water if they can afford it, gastrointestinal infections remain depressingly common.

Groundwater, from which many Jakartans without access to piped water draw their daily supplies, is even more polluted. According to the Ministry of Health, every year at least 300 out of 1,000 Indonesians suffer from water-borne diseases, including cholera and typhoid fever. Diarrhoea is the second leading killer of children under five.

For the poor, water is also expensive. In some parts of Jakarta, says water-rights campaigner Muhamad Reza, local criminals sell water to residents at inflated prices, either from from their own illegal connections or the public water hydrants that they control.

The obvious solution is to improve the quality, reliability and accessibility of the city's piped water supply. Sadly, however, this is no easy task.

Media reports say that programmes by non-governmental organisations to connect local slums to the city's piped water system are often met with threats and sometimes violence by thugs.

The more serious issue, however, has to do with the management of the city's piped water system. Two companies provide piped water in Jakarta: Aetra, which handles the eastern half of the city; and Palyja, which provides water to the western half.

Aetra is controlled by Acuatico, a Singapore-based consortium which purchased its stake from Britain's Thames Water in 2006. Palyja was recently acquired by Manila Water from French company Suez.

The arrangement was intended as a public-private sector partnership, in which the government owns the assets and the operators manage them.

Jakarta's piped water supply system has been controversial since 1997, when privatisation efforts prompted charges of cronyism because the two foreign companies - Palyja and Aetra - that gained the concessions included minority interests closely linked to the Suharto regime. There was no public tender, and the contract terms remained largely unknown.

After the chaos in Jakarta in 1998 following the fall of president Suharto, both companies effectively abandoned their investments, leaving them to be managed by PAM Jaya, the state agency ultimately responsible for Jakarta's waterworks.

In 2001, Palyja and Aetra returned, shed their Suharto connections and renegotiated their contracts. As before, however, few details were made public.

One issue highlighted by critics is the poor state of the current distribution network. Leakages in the pipes mean that not all treated water can be sold. As a result, water charges are much higher than they would otherwise be.

The extent of such leakage is not known, but in 2011 PAM Jaya estimated that the city lost 17 billion rupiah (US$1.75 million) in forgone income annually as a result. The poor state of the pipe network also allows for the water to be contaminated in transit.

Concessionaires are usually penalised for allowing such a situation to develop. In Indonesia, however, such penalties were imposed only two years ago. And the 80 million rupiah set for each percentage point of leakage is considered by many to give the operators little incentive to embark on major repairs.

Equally worrying is the alleged obfuscation game being played by both PAM Jaya and its concessionaires regarding the terms of the contracts involved.

PAM Jaya is heavily in debt, and Reza argues that withholding contract information has provided opportunities for ill-gotten gains. The concessionaires insist that their operations are fully transparent. But they also point to a confidentiality clause that forbids the disclosure of "all commercial and technical information" held by either party. Critics charge that under Indonesian law, the information should be public.

The most important document, apparently, is an addendum attached to the contract PAM Jaya holds with its operators that includes everything used to calculate what consumers pay for water and what PAM Jaya pays the operators for their services.

Attempts by activists to force the release of the documents through Indonesia's Public Information Commission have only been partially successful, and the case is now under appeal.

Whatever the outcome, it would be wise to keep that bottle of mineral water handy. The provision of safe, reliable and easily accessible drinking water to Jakartans remains a long way off.


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