Tue, 21 Jan 2003

Fresh water for all

One of the bills being currently deliberated in the House is the Water Resources Management Bill, which is presumably designed to become an umbrella for the total restructuring of water management in the future.

Like the electricity bill, which was passed into law in September 2002, the Water Resources Management Bill will also open wide opportunities for private sector involvement in the business.

The reason behind the necessity of having a bill on water resources management is seemingly simple. There is a serious danger of imbalance between water supply and rising water demand. Globally, about a billion people have no access to clean water; and about three million people die every year due to diseases related to water. According to the United Nations' estimates, the number of people suffering from an inadequate supply of clean water will grow to 5 billion from the current 2 billion.

It brings forward the techno-economistic argument that unless water is treated as an increasingly precious commodity and priced accordingly -- particularly for heavy users like farmers and industries -- much of it will be wasted. Add to that the declining water quality because of pollution. The techno- economistic conclusion is: Water is a commodity which should be managed according to market mechanisms.

This illusively righteous concept strongly influences the World Bank commitment to water resources restructuring in many parts of the world, including in Indonesia. The World Bank failure decades ago to fix the public water supply system in Manila, where water loss was as high as 64 percent, adds another illusive conviction. The restructuring program should open opportunities for private sector involvement.

The World Bank has always contrasted the deterioration in public service in many parts of the world with the performance of the private sector, which is described as being capable of providing an efficient service as well as large financing and investment funds. Therefore, the World Bank strongly believes that the private sector will have to be increasingly involved in water resources management through concessions, management contracts, or private ownership.

What the proponents of water privatization do not put forward is the fact that a similar approach applied in many developing countries like Argentine, Bolivia, Panama, South Africa and other countries has created a chain of disastrous results, especially among the poor, both in urban and rural areas.

In those countries, most of the investments were actually made with government money, or at best with a government guarantee. In most cases, especially where local governments were subjected to long-term contracts, actual private investment did not materialize. What local people have to bear is increasingly a higher price of clean water.

Meanwhile corporations owning or operating water systems across the globe are bringing in about US$200 billion a year and growing by about 6 percent a year.

In Indonesia, the World Bank is currently promoting its Water Resources Sector Adjustment Loan worth US$300 million. Hence comes the condition: Indonesia has to pass a law which opens the door to private sector involvement.

For a heavily indebted country like Indonesia, the options are very limited. It is either accommodating the World Bank's wishes or losing access to sources of development funds.

Considering the heavy schedule of the House during its current, relatively short sitting session of two months, the water resources management bill highly probably will be passed into law without serious deliberation. For the average House members, this bill seems to be of less priority as compared to other more "important" political bills, or debates about the recent price hikes.

By passing this bill without serious public scrutiny, the House will be held responsible for passing a catastrophic time bomb which will adversely affect the whole population for decades to come. To avoid that, the House should oppose privatizing water and turning it into an economic commodity. A water resources management should enshrine fresh water as an essential good to which all people have a right.