Sat, 27 Mar 1999

Clean water: A precious resource becoming rarer by the day

By Stevie Emilia

JAKARTA (JP): Four-year-old Atang was busy playing with his toy, a wooden truck. But the sound of rain drops made him stop. In a rush, he took off his shirt and shorts and ran outside into the rain.

One might think that the boy was just having fun playing in the rain. However, the truth is Atang was taking his bath. His first in two days.

This might surprise those who are used to the comfort of taking two baths or showers a day, or those who have the luxury of having (or wasting?) gallons of water in their private pools.

Atang, at a very early age, has learned about water shortage the hard way.

"It's not only Atang who takes a bath in the rain, but also his sister and brothers," said Icah, a mother of four in Cilincing, North Jakarta. Atang is her youngest child.

For Icah, rain is a blessing from God because it means more clean water for bathing and washing. Yet, Icah is not aware that rain water is not really clean because it carries with it various pollutants.

Although her shack does not have proper furniture, she has several plastic water containers of various sizes and several huge clay pots outside her house to catch the water whenever the rain falls.

"During the rainy season we have more clean clothes than usual. We also bathe regularly," Icah said.

But she can not always depend on the rain. During last year's dry season, there were times when her family could not bathe for three consecutive days.

There were also times when she had to take her children to the mosque, which is quite far from her house, to take a bath. "Sometimes, I also wash my clothes there," smiled Icah.

Icah said a few years ago, her husband tried to dig a well behind their house, but the effort was fruitless because the water was salty and dirty. "So we just have to accept reality."

Icah and her husband, both scavengers, cannot do much with their income. It is already difficult for them to afford Rp 1,000 a day to buy 20 liters of clean water from tanks provided by city water company PDAM for the neighborhood.

"I only use the water I buy strictly for drinking and cooking," said Icah. During a good day, Icah and her husband make Rp 10,000 at the most.

Despite the difficulties getting clean water, Icah has no plans to become a customer of PDAM.

"We're not employees with monthly salaries, you know. Sometimes we bring money home, sometimes we don't. So how would we pay the bill," Icah asked?

In Pademangan, North Jakarta, the situation is not much better. In the small and filthy Sunter River, some women can be seen washing their clothes and dishes, ignoring the garbage floating along the river not far from where they work.

"I have done my washing in this river for a long time now, the difference is now the river is getting dirtier," said Ijah, one of the women.

She could use the public washing area near her house, but the water is salty and murky.

"Washing in the river is much better for the clothes because the water here is not salty," said the 42-year-old woman, a mother of four.

For drinking and cooking, Ijah buys clean water from a man who sells water from house to house for Rp 1,000 for 20 liters.

"We're poor. We're already lucky if we have food on our table. We cannot afford to pay a monthly bill for water," said Ijah. Her husband is unemployed after losing his job as a construction worker. Ijah now supports the family by selling snacks from her house.

Icah and Ijah are just two of many people who experience difficulties getting clean water.

Saltwater intrusion in North Jakarta makes it impossible for residents to use ground water there, while PDAM still cannot provide service to all of Jakarta's 9.8 million residents.

The company only is able to provide clean water to about 40 percent of Jakartans, but its present joint venture with two foreign water companies is expected to boost its services and its customers.

A recent study conducted by the Indonesian Institute of Science showed saltwater intrusion in the city was widespread, reaching from North Jakarta to Kuningan in South Jakarta, Kebon Kacang in Central Jakarta and Cililitan in East Jakarta.

Saltwater intrusion is not the only problem facing Jakartans as water shortages hit Jakarta almost every dry season.

A survey conducted by the administration's environmental office between January 1997 and July 1997 of 300 artesian wells with a depth of between 20 and 30 meters showed high contamination by substances ranging from bacteria to detergent.

The grim reality, however, does not prevent people from using water freely, almost carelessly, because most people believe water is an unlimited natural resource.

Faced with these water problems, the authorities have called on people to save water and have urged the middle and upper- classes to show solidarity with those without access to clean water by using water efficiently.

In observance of the World Day for Water, which fell on March 22, the United Nations warned that unless more action was taken, the number of people without access to safe water would increase to 2.3 billion by 2025.

The UN said that at present, 20 percent of the world's population in 30 countries faced water shortages. The figure is estimated to rise to 30 percent of the world's population in 50 countries by 2025.

Presently, every eight seconds a child dies from water-related diseases, such as diarrhea and dengue fever, and 50 percent of the world's population lacks adequate sanitation.

The UN stated that water problems stemmed from inefficient use of water, degradation of available water by pollution and the unsustainable use of underground water in aquifers.

It also blamed water scarcity on human failure, including the reluctance to treat water as an economic as well as public resource and an inadequate recognition of the health and environmental concerns associated with current water practices.

The UN said the capability to provide safe, clean water and adequate sanitation facilities for people were two fundamental requirements for people's well-being and dignity.