Indonesia’s Water Woes Just Beginning

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Last month, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring access to clean water and sanitation a fundamental human right.

By a vote of 122 in favor and none opposed, the assembly on July 28 adopted language affirming “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” Forty-one countries abstained.  By supporting the UN resolution, signatories commit to playing a greater role in meeting the need for adequate, safe and affordable access to water. Indonesia voted in favor of the measure. The UN stated its “deep concern” that around 884 million people are without access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation. The Assembly expressed alarm at the fact that 1.5 million children under 5 years of age die each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases, according to data from the UN’s “Water for Life” Web site.

Though it is widely recognized that water will be a major source of conflict in the future, Indonesia has yet to include water resource issues among its top development priorities.

This can be illustrated by the many rivers that have suffered extensive damage from pollution in our country.

In the 1970s, there were 22 severely damaged rivers. Toward the end of the 1990s, that number rose to 62. Last year, the figure stood at 64.

Tragically, for the past three decades, there has been no serious effort to restore these rivers. The problem is made worse by the fact that the annual deforestation rate is still growing.

From 2000 to 2005, deforestation across the country stood at an average of 1,089,560 hectares per year.

Although Indonesia still has a surplus of water, deforestation will inevitably affect the availability of water in many provinces, mainly in Java, Bali, East Nusa Tenggara, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi.

The threat is made worse by the condition of the country’s water resource infrastructure, which is no longer capable of supplying clean water to the public through either private operators or state-owned water supply company Perusahaan Daerah Air Minum.

As of 2009, PDAM only covers 24 percent of households nationwide and many of its branch offices are strapped for cash.

The company’s inability to expand its services is becoming more pronounced as environmental damage and regional rivalries limit supply.

State budget allocations for clean water and sanitation, worth around Rp 3 trillion to Rp 4 trillion ($340 million to $450 million) a year, are low compared to the government allocation for electricity subsidies, which is worth about Rp 40 trillion per year.

Securing the people’s right to clean water requires the state to play a larger role. Indonesia’s willingness to adhere to the new UN resolution would, of course, impact positively on the development of water resources across the country.

As a first step, the government should have the political will to meet the public’s need for clean water and sanitation.

It should hold public discussions and debates on the technical aspects of water resource problems and its impact on people’s lives.

The debate on the future of our water resources should involve all sectors of society because it is an issue of justice, especially for the poor and communities in isolated regions that badly need access to affordable clean water.

Healthy debate coupled with the government’s commitment could pave the way for a major policy initiative on clean water resources.

This would not only address ways to develop water resource infrastructure, but also answer the question of which sectors of society need the most help.

Several countries have already taken steps to meet the water needs of their people. South Africa, for example, conducted a survey on its people’s hopes for the new government shortly after the end of apartheid.

The survey results showed that people wanted the state to provide job opportunities, build adequate housing and urgently provide clean water and sanitation.

Based on the survey, the South African government prepared a grand plan to achieve those targets.

As a result, public access to clean water reached 100 percent in urban areas and 80 percent in rural areas, according to a 2008 World Health Organization report.

In Uruguay, the government even amended its Constitution in 2004, giving priority to social considerations in issuing policies on water and sanitation.

In another example, the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre introduced a participative budgeting system that included the development of clean water supplies.

These countries have shown that water, as a public commodity, should be well managed and protected, and those water resource problems should always be addressed in a democratic way.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has an important role to play in addressing Indonesia’s water troubles. We are all watching and waiting.

During the remainder of his second and final term in office, Yudhoyono has no choice but to include water and sanitation issues among the nation’s development priorities. Our future depends on it.

Hamong Santono is a national coordinator of the People’s Coalition for The Right to Water  (KRuHA).

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