Jakarta’s Piped Water Problems: Beyond a Sinking City

The use of groundwater in place of piped water has often been attributed as one of the main reasons why Jakarta became the world’s fastest sinking city. Yet, the discussion at times overlooks two other major effects of having low piped water coverage: inequality and health. In 2017, Jakarta’s regional water company, PAM Jaya, announced its goal of bringing piped water to 100% of its citizens by 2030 from approximately 60% that year. By the end of 2019, however, PAM Jaya wrote in its annual report that their services had reached 62.96% of Jakarta’s population — only a small increase from 2017.

Jakarta’s disappointing performance comes as no surprise. Data from the WHO and UNICEF shows that Indonesia still has work to do in improving its urban piped water system compared to its ASEAN neighbors.

On a national level, Indonesia may be performing at similar levels to its neighbors in terms of piped water coverage. However, when looking at the coverage in urban areas, the country has the worst outcome in ASEAN at 45%.

Behind the slow uptake of piped water

Jakarta’s first water pipelines were installed in 1922 during the colonial period. At the time, the city provided pipes for the wealthier Dutch population. Meanwhile, the poor (consisting of other ethnicities) had to obtain water from the public tap or water vendors. The slow expansion of water pipelines continued in the Sukarno and Suharto eras, which also catered to historically wealthy areas in certain parts of Central and South Jakarta. In spite of this, data from the Jakarta Government shows that — counterintuitively — it is these same areas that rely on groundwater the most today.

So why does the city’s reliance on groundwater persist? It boils down to a few key reasons:

Consumers: better options and lack of consistent quality

On the consumer side, there is the perception that deep groundwater has superior quality and reliability to piped water. Much more expensive than shallow groundwater, deep groundwater is primarily consumed by industrial and commercial users, such as malls, high income housing estates and apartment residences. Before groundwater taxes were implemented in 2009, deep groundwater was also more profitable to use than piped water.

Additionally, some residents combine the use of both piped water and groundwater depending on their geographical location. Their location would determine the degree of salinity in their groundwater and their proximity to networked pipes. While Jakarta’s piped water network may be more wide-reaching today, in reality, the quality still fluctuates significantly. As of 2015, less than half of the city’s network meets the required standards for water pressure.

Suppliers: continuous water theft and vested interests

While it is easy to point to Jakarta’s water privatization in 1997 as the reason why piped water coverage growth has been stagnant since, doing so misses the bigger picture. As previously mentioned, the lack of a complete centralized piped water network has been a recurring problem since the pre-independence era, when the system was still publicly owned. Instead, we can dissect another more important piece of the puzzle.

On the supply side, according to a 2008 ADB report, regional water companies have been reluctant to expand their services due to “illegal residents, fear of water theft, leakages, inefficient water billing, and inability of poor households to pay the connection fee.” Yet, as ADB also points out, these problems could have been resolved by tried and tested solutions, such as establishing a community-based organization (CBO) “responsible for a simple piped network system downstream of a bulk/master meter” as done in the Philippines. Doing so would allow regional water companies to prevent water or financial losses, while also allowing the community to receive more water at better prices. The question then is: how come this solution has not been put in place yet in 2021?


Piped Water
Rp 5,297/m³

Water Truck
Rp 65,000/m³

Jerry Can Water
Rp 140,000/m³

Drinking Water Gallons
Rp 950,000/m³
Source: compilation of price listings

On another note, looking at the market prices of other water providers in Jakarta, ranging from water trucks to drinking gallons, raises yet another question. Piped water is incredibly cheap even when looking at the next cheapest alternative. In theory, this should incentivize residents to use piped water, and PAM Jaya would expand their services to reflect the high demand. Even if they were to raise their prices to cover the costs of expanding the network, it still makes financial sense for both the residents and PAM Jaya to pursue this option. So why has this not been done yet? While further investigation is needed, a Kompas report from June 2021 can help shed some light on how the current situation came about.

The Kompas report highlights the existence of a water crime syndicate in Jakarta, which allegedly consists of “the local subdistrict head, the field employees of private operators, and former PAM Jaya employees.” Their report found that these groups would establish illegal pipe connections from PAM’s own networks, selling tap water services above normal rates to those in the area. The syndicate’s actual size is still unclear, but their actions suggest that they could be colluding with those working within the regional water company. To support this theory, some of the water thieves’ field agents seemed to have been aware of the company’s schedule for raids against illegal piping. The agents went so far as to warn unsuspecting victims against disclosing the agents’ identities beforehand.

Interestingly, the ones with the most to gain by preserving the existing status quo of Jakarta’s water market would be these alternative water agents. Looking at the prices they charge compared to that of PAM Jaya’s official network, they currently have a very large profit margin. With the media corroborating the existence of a water crime syndicate and its potential link to PAM Jaya, as it stands, it would not be completely outlandish that these agents are part of the vested interests behind Jakarta’s subpar water industry. While this still cannot be confirmed, it would be a step in the right direction to look into the relationship between these companies and PAM Jaya.

Consequences of low coverage

Inequality

Currently, the majority of PAM Jaya’s customers belong to the lower-middle to middle income brackets, with low and upper income users still unconnected to the centralized network. Nevertheless, with PAM Jaya’s inconsistent performance, many of the city’s residents still have to purchase water from other sources in addition to using groundwater. As written in the section above, the average prices of water sourced from other providers can range between approximately 10-175x that of piped water. However, the difference is that this price disparity would disproportionately burden the poor. Their expenditure on water, a basic commodity, takes up a higher share of income compared to wealthier users.

Furthermore, to install piped water, PAM Jaya has a policy of requiring residents to show their ID and property tax payment receipts. In turn, those without the necessary documents resort to other ways to secure their water supply. With such restrictions, it has prevented some lower income households from installing PAM Jaya’s services. Additionally, the legal barriers against lower income households have encouraged these households to receive water from their neighbors, or worse, secure illegal piped water from the water mafia. Not only may this be priced higher than normal tariffs, their supplies would also be at risk from being cut off by PAM Jaya once discovered.

Health

The use of groundwater over piped water has large implications on the city’s hygiene and sanitation levels. Another report by the ADB from 2016 quotes statistics from the Java Water Resources Strategic Study, which found that in Jakarta, 45% of groundwater had been contaminated by fecal coliform and 80% by E. coli. Some causes of groundwater pollution include short distances between the water wells and septic tanks, untreated domestic wastewater, industrial effluents and leachate from landfill.

In addition to malnutrition, the Ministry of Health stated that poor water quality and sanitation has contributed to Indonesia’s stunting problem. In terms of stunting, the country ranks the fourth highest in the world with 27.67% of children affected in 2020. On top of affecting their heights, stunting also impairs children’s physical, mental and intellectual development. In the future, this could even negatively influence the quality of the country’s work force if the issue is not promptly addressed.

Addressing PAM Jaya’s Strategy

PAM Jaya’s ambitious goal of achieving 100% piped water access by 2030 is commendable, but there is one caveat. Rather than focusing on coverage alone, PAM Jaya first and foremost needs to ensure that its services are reliable enough for domestic, commercial and industrial users to want to make the permanent switch to its network. Otherwise, even with 100% coverage, residents may continue their dual use of groundwater and piped water. Another important element beyond coverage alone is for PAM Jaya to address underlying problems within Jakarta’s inefficient water market, whether it is due to vested interests or other reasons still unknown.

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Categorized as Politics

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