Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Providing Clean Water or Dirty Business?

By Andreas Harsono*

BANDUNG, Indonesia (IPS) - Annur Sukarya takes tap water from his house and sells it, in 30-litre jerry cans, at a price more than six times what he pays to the Bandung Public Water Co, known locally by its Indonesian acronym PDAM.

Sukarya lives in Cicadas, one of Bandung’s oldest and most crowded working-class areas. He sells a jerry can of water at 500 rupiah (six US cents). Those who bring the water to consumers subsequently sell the water at 1,000 rupiah per jerry can.

Cicadas consumers, like Harry Harsono, pay 5,000 rupiah (60 cents) for a cart of five jerry cans. "We obviously also need to tip the delivery man," he said wryly.

Cicadas is one of the areas where PDAM rates very poorly. Many houses have tap water albeit no running water. "Sometimes we joke that we pay only for the wind going through our (water) pipes," quipped Harsono. Water flows through his tap only every other day. "It’s only one hour, between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning," he said. His neighbours use water from their wells to bathe, but buy Sukarya’s water for drinking and cooking.

Bandung is Indonesia’s fourth largest city about two hours drive up the mountains from Jakarta. Its population has increased from one million in 1961 to more than three million today, bringing with it chronic problems of waste disposal, floods, chaotic traffic system and a water crisis.

Today, PDAM serves not more than half of Bandung’s population. Officially, it cannot install new water taps, but residents say corrupt officials can always benefit from new installations at marked-up prices.

"Almost all houses in Kopo Permai have no tap water," pointed out Rufina Handayani, a homemaker in the Kopo Permai area. Handayani buys eight to nine gallons of water for drinking and cooking at 4,000 rupiah (48 cents) per gallon. She spends 1.3 million rupiah (150 dollars) per month on water.

Mulyani Hasan, a young journalist who lives by herself, pays 800 rupiah (less than 10 cents) per jerry can in her Ciwastra neighborhood. "I can’t even use my well water to brush my teeth. It’s so murky," she said.

Her home is located behind a complex of shopping malls, office buildings and upmarket hotels, so residents suspect that they use powerful pumps to suck up water from deep artesian wells. "The water vendors sell water from their PDAM taps. If I want to install my own tap, I have to pay five million rupiah (575 dollars)," she said.

Fitriadi Alibasah, a broadcaster at radio Mara FM, said that water complaints reach his station everyday. Most callers complain about taps that stop running, erroneous bills or vanishing water meters.

"Some people also complain when seeing that their neighbors have a new installation when officially PDAM, for many years, has been saying no more new installations due to the lack of water sources," said Alibasah.

"Suddenly I received a bill, stating that I have not paid for tap water for some years. It totalled 800,000 rupiah (96 dollars) when I usually pay only 30,000 (3.6 dollars) a month," recalled Ati Kusmiati, a homemaker in Turangga area.

She had not kept all her water receipts, and had to pay up. "Later it happened again, but this time I kept all my bills. I showed them the receipts. PDAM just decided that it was a mistake. That’s all," she said.

PDAM spokeswoman Melliana Saptarini routinely addresses the concerns of the public with her daily routine reply: "We apologise for the inconvenience. We will send our officials to investigate the problem." Sometimes, something happens. But most of the time, nothing does.

In 2002, the Bandung government had plans to privatise PDAM. The Adelaide-based South Australia Water submitted a proposal to take over PDAM. It also offered to pay the water utility’s debts to international creditors.

But PDAM president Soenitiyoso Pratikto rejected the plan and mobilised his workers to rally against it on nationalist grounds. The plan was shelved. Ironically, a few months later, police questioned Pratikto on corruption charges. His collaborator was found guilty of embezzlement in connection with a pipe laying project.

In October, Pratikto’s successor Jaja Sutardja publicly said that the company plans to ask Indonesia’s Ministry of Finance and the House of Representatives in Jakarta to write off PDAM’s debt, which now totals 300 billion rupiah (33 million dollars).

Not everyone in Bandung is happy with this idea. "It means that they want to wash their hands (of the problem)," said Harry Harsono. His colleague, Fauzi Zulkarnain, added that PDAM is run like a mafia network. "Everybody knows it has many thieves and robbers," he said.

Dadan Junaedi, an activist with the Working Group for Water Community, argues that the problem is one of management. "It’s not transparent. We don’t know for sure how they manage PDAM," he said. According to an Eco Asia survey, PDAM is among 44 water companies whose prices and expenses are considered reasonable.

Bandung residents have been living with water woes for more than 50 years, and find that they have few options these days. They can either bribe PDAM officials to install expensive water taps or set up a deep and costly artesian well.

But poor people like those living in Cicadas or Kiara Condong cannot afford these and have to rely on water vendors like Sukarya.

Pointed out Junaedi: "The government should solve this problem. Water is a human right."

* This story is being distributed by IPS Asia-Pacific under a communication agreement with the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, in Singapore, which produced it. (FIN/2007)

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