Sat, 25 Jan 2003

Rules, not privatization, needed to ensure water access

The government has submitted a bill on water privatization to the legislature for approval. The government sees water privatization as the best way of improving people's awareness of preserving the commodity. Resistance to the bill, however, is based on the fear that it would gradually lead to denial of public access to clean water. Ahmad Safrudin, chairman of the Jakarta-based Environmental Task Force (ETF), shares his views on this issue with The Jakarta Post's Soeryo Winoto.

Question: What do you think lay behind the government's decision to submit the bill on privatization of water to the legislature?

Answer: International influential organizations, which have interests in Indonesia, had a role in pushing the government to propose the bill (to the House of Representatives).

Obviously, in recent years, water resources for both drinking and other purposes, like irrigation, have gradually decreased. Therefore, the reasons for proposing the bill should be perceived as efforts to manage and conserve water properly and to maintain people's equal access to (clean) water.

Q: The World Bank has reportedly recommended water privatization in some countries, including Indonesia. Do you think this has served as an inspiration to the government?

A: Directly or indirectly, yes. There is a tendency that the government believes that economically, privatization will benefit the people.

Q: If the House passes the bill what would be the most serious environmental and social economic impacts?

A: Environmentally, overexploitation of water will likely continue simply to meet market demand -- water resources would no longer support environmental conservation.

Would private companies with permits to exploit water resources put conservation interests above business interests? Experience proves that private companies are all business- oriented.

From the socioeconomic point of view, people's lack of access to water resources could trigger conflicts. Why don't we learn from our own experience that privatizing natural resources could cause social conflict? We could take as examples the exploration of oil in Lhokseumawe, Aceh, and gold mining in West Nusa Tenggara, Papua, North Sulawesi and East Kalimantan.

Conflict emerges whenever privatization denies people's access to water. I believe that the people would be in weak position regarding the process for deciding water tariffs.

Q: What should be done to prevent excessive exploitation of water? Do you see any appropriate control mechanism that could be established by the government to guarantee access to clean water?

A: Privatization could obviously get out of hand (in the future). If the government just wants to manage water resources in a more efficient and effective manner, privatization is not the answer. To manage water resources properly, the government simply needs to make comprehensive regulations (on water exploitation) and implement them in a very careful and transparent manner.

If the House deliberated the bill and passed it into law, the government would be overwhelmed in controlling the investors authorized to manage water resources, despite a mechanism or system to control the privatization.

The government would bow to private investors ... The case of PDAM Jaya (the Jakarta city water firm) is an example of the government's helplessness in implementing the control mechanism.

Government officials tend to show dishonesty ... This attitude has inspired private companies to ignore business ethics and this will by all means affect people's proper access to clean water. This could cause a domino effect -- meaning that the clean water market was open while people's access to clean water gradually declined.

Water privatization offers big business opportunities to investors, but, in the long run, threatens the people's livelihood.

Q: Many springs in mountainous areas in Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan are now controlled by private companies producing bottled water. In urban areas both foreign and domestic investors have been competing in the water supply business. How should we see this phenomenon?

A: Many springs are indeed controlled by private companies. The 2002 drought and water crisis in Jakarta has been perceived by investors as a promising business opportunity.

Anyhow, we must conserve and protect water resources as public goods that must be professionally managed through transparent regulations at regional (regency) levels. Enforcement of the regulation must be controlled by local communities. The legislature must be responsive to people's aspirations in law- making, while the executive must facilitate everything regarding water management.

Q: Water has become an expensive commodity, even more expensive than gasoline. How do you see this?

A: Water will continue to be an expensive commodity. I'm afraid this is the business opportunity that will be captured by international institutions in order to benefit from water resources in developing countries, including Indonesia. Therefore, we should all be more critical in the way we perceive this development.

We all agree that water resources management needs new and better regulations, which are able to maintain and preserve water resources or springs as valuable natural resources. However, once again, privatization is not the formula to improve water management.

Q: How do you see Article 33 of the 1945 Constitution, which states that essential resources should be controlled by the state?

A: Water, soil and all natural wealth are controlled by the state ... this means that the state must use its authority to the benefit of its citizens' lives.

The state must produce regulations or laws to empower itself. But this is not a monopoly. The regulations must cover the people's interests ... cultural values and ethics in society must be adopted to make the regulations more transparent and accommodating. In this way water resources could be properly managed (by the state and the people).

The (focus of the) bill should be changed to regulation of water resources at the macro level, together with regional (regency or mayoralty) level laws as the directives. The people must be involved in law-making and the monitoring of law enforcement.

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: The bill, which could be later passed into law at the central government level, is supposed to be the umbrella for all relevant regulations, including the provincial and regency regulations which regulate more technical aspects.

The making of provincial and regency regulations must accommodate local aspirations, the culture and tradition. Take the Balinese irrigation system of subak. The regulations must not negate or annul the subak, but develop it for the sake of people's prosperity.

Echo bio-region system must be adapted in the management of water resources. The Ciliwung river flows through Jakarta and Bogor. Consequently there must be a kind of joint regional regulation to manage the river.

A special body can be set up if necessary to prevent conflicting interests between the two administrations. Or, a one- river-one-management system could be applied to avoid conflict.