exclusive: Jakarta’s Water Woes

River settlement in Jakarta
River settlement: Residents have expanded into the Ciliwung river, narrowing its flow and contributing to trash build up that prevents proper drainage.

Imagine a raft on a river. People keep piling on it but they grow thirsty. They drill holes in the floorboards to access water from below. Now the raft starts sinking, but more people keep boarding and drilling holes and drinking dirty river water. This raft is Jakarta.

Asia’s mega cities are suffering under the weight of mass migration to city centres, which strains infrastructure and life-sustaining resources. Less than half of Jakarta’s 9 million people have water on tap, and only three per cent of the city’s households have proper sewage systems.

The problem is one of both quantity and quality. Jakarta faces severe flooding caused by poor urban planning, rapid urbanization and global climate change. High-density development prevents the ground from absorbing rainwater and slum areas that have literally spread into the city’s rivers narrow the amount of water that flows out to sea.

When it rains, water pools in Jakarta. But the amount of clean, potable water is far from adequate. The challenge facing city planners now is how to keep this urban raft and its water-starved population from drowning.

Thinking about flooding

Thirteen rivers run through Jakarta, a coastal city that draws its water from a hilltop reservoir located about 80 kilometers to the south. Nearly a century ago, city planners drafted a blueprint for Jakarta that included two flood canals that would divert water coming from higher elevations around the city’s heart and out to the sea.

The city completed the West Flood Canal in 1920, but land acquisition issues that involved evicting settled communities held up the development of the eastern section.

Then, in 2007, Jakarta experienced some of the worst flooding in its history, with 57 people killed by a deluge that inflicted losses of around US$695 million. The disaster forced the government to step up its flood mitigation efforts, and in January this year it completed the East Flood Canal.

Ratih Hardjono, an advisor in the office of Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo, said in just six months the canal has already reduced flooding in the northern and eastern parts of the city by 30 per cent.

Dredging is the city’s current priority and it has received a US$150 million loan from the World Bank to begin an emergency dredging initiative aimed at clearing the rivers of sediment and trash that clogs the drainage system.

But dredging is labour intensive and must be done continuously. Hardjono says the governor understands this and is campaigning to keep the dredging going and to educate residents not to throw their trash into the river. The city is also working on a more ambitious river widening campaign, but advisors at the World Bank say Jakarta needs to start small.

A huge part of flood mitigation involves improved sanitation and trash collection, says Irma Setiono, one of the World Bank’s water and sanitation specialists. At an estimated cost of US$200 million, am improved maintenance system would come at a cheaper price than an entire river system overhaul.

The bigger challenge is getting clean water to needy communities because problems with distribution are far more complex and difficult to fix.

Improving access for all

Every day, local housewife Farida visits the community well in Penjaringan, where she pays a premium for heavy containers of brackish water that she must carry back to her home. Farida, who goes by one name, uses the water for washing clothes and bathing her two children, but still she must boil it before making the noodle soup she sells to support her family.

A programme run by Mercy Corps in Penjaringan, one of Jakarta’s densest neighbourhoods, has made some residents’ lives easier. The international aid organization, which started in 2008, helped tap into the water line from French-run PT Palyja, one of two private water companies that control Jakarta’s water supply.

Working in partnership with Palyja, Mercy Corps ran individual water lines to households willing and able to pay the $20 start-up fee. Suddenly, scores of homes had running water – but limited supplies mean the Mercy Corps programme can only support the needs of 55 households. And it is the shortage of raw water that Firdaus Ali, a technical advisor at Jakarta’s water regulatory body, says is the biggest problem facing the Indonesian city.

Next comes poor infrastructure, which allows human waste and rubbish to contaminate supplies as they travel from the city’s water treatment plants to people’s homes. Leaks account a large chunk of the water lost as it travels through Jakarta’s distribution system, but people who connect to the pipelines illegally also are also responsible for losses that result in only half of the city’s water getting where it is needed.

Reducing the number of people who siphon off supplies requires a re-think of the current tariff system, says the World Bank’s Ms Setiono.

Jakarta has some of some of the highest water tariffs in Asia, but there is also a huge disparity between what rich and poor pay. The government charges wealthy neighbourhoods, apartment blocks and large commercial spaces around US$1.40 per cubic meter, while the poor pay only US$0.17 for the same amount.

Palyja has repeatedly asked the government to raise prices because it says it does not have enough money to improve its processing and distribution system.

City officials say they don’t want to increase water tariffs for the poor because it will add to their financial burden. But Ms Setiono says they don’t realize that only 20 per cent of the city’s urban poor actually benefit from subsidized water. “The rest of them pay much more than the rich.”

What often happens in poor neighbourhoods is that a small group, often referred to as the water mafia, takes control of the communal tank and charges residents double or triple what it pays to Palyja. The best way to provide equal access is through direct house connections, Ms Setiono says, but connecting informal communities to the grid is difficult because many are living on the land illegally.

Piping water to these neighbourhoods would require that the government formally
recognize their right to exist, says Ali, explaining that the government has said “no” to allowing piped water to places like Penjaringan.

It is here that those without piped water still struggle to get water to their homes. Farida, who is ineligible to participate in the Mercy Corps programme because she lost her citizenship papers in a fire, says it is tiring to collect the water. She sees how easy it is for her neighbour Ms Rosecta, who recently joined the Mercy Corp programme.

Bringing piped water into more homes benefits the community and the water companies, since it means fewer people are forced to steal water from the system, says Ms Setiono.

She is currently heading up a project to bring piped water to 15,000 poor households in the northwest of Jakarta. The $2.5-million program, known as the Global Partnership on Output-based Aid (GPOBA), covers the connection fee that plugs residents into the pipeline and helps Palyja expand its distribution network by installing additional pumps.

The technical issues are easy, Ms Setiono says. It’s the politics behind the tariff system that are more complex. The government doesn’t need to increase the tariff, but they do need to adjust it so that it is more equitable.

Looking for answers

The government is increasingly looking to public-private partnerships, and the National Development Planning Agency, or Bappenas, has begun promoting private-sector investment in infrastructure development.

“There are lots of companies interested in investing in Indonesia, but this country is not ready for real PPP (public-private partnerships),” Ms Setiono says, referring to unclear, contradictory regulations that confuse investors which often result with the government handing responsibility for such partnerships over to the private sector.

Manila has a similar privatized water system to Jakarta, but the relationship between city administrators and the operator is better.

Mr Philippe Wind, the former technical director at Palyja, says the government does not give the private sector incentives to improve the system of distribution, and yet it also doesn’t want to invest its own money in making it better.

He says the different entities need to talk to each other about sharing the water and improving the way it is managed through performance-based contracts or by allowing private contractors to help with infrastructure improvements.

Jakarta could learn some lessons from Singapore, says Mr Wind, who now works as an infrastructure and environment manager at the engineering consultancy Worley Parsons. The city-state also faced clean water shortages in the 1970s, but it got serious about investing in improvements, such as wastewater recycling – which is targeted to meet 30 per cent of Singapore’s water needs this year.

Reusing wastewater would require more energy in Jakarta, since only three per cent of it is currently collected. But Jakarta must find a way to work with what it has and entice private sector investments to improve its situation urgently. Otherwise this urban raft could face some serious rapids ahead.

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