Tue, 26 Aug 2003

Villagers sell everything for just a drop of water

It was 1 p.m. in Tepus, located some 30 kilometers south of Gunungkidul regency's capital of Wonosari.

Suntono, 68, had given up his hope for a few jerry cans of water for his family. Usually, he would collect the water from a man-made pond about two kilometers away from his humble house of woven bamboo walls.

"It has been some time since the pond completely dried up. There's nothing for us to collect anymore," said Suntono, who has been suffering from a cataract for five years, but cannot afford to go to a doctor.

Suntono, like many of his neighbors, used to collect water from the pond twice a day for their daily needs. In the morning, on his way to his cassava field, he would carry the jerry cans with him and collect water on his way home for lunch. He would repeat the process when he returned to the fields after lunch, collecting water as he made his way home at dusk.

The current drought has practically dried up all ponds and small water sources in the area, which have cracked from the heat.

Unlike the rich, poor people like Suntono cannot afford to buy water from vendors, and he relies on the free water provided by the local government.

In the prolonged drought, water has become a precious commodity throughout much of Gunungkidul. A 4,000-liter tank of water costs Rp 60,000 (US$7) -- a great sum for a poor family like Suntono's.

When the water ration from the government is inadequate, villagers sell anything they have for water: household appliances, livestock and gaplek. Gaplek is dried cassava, which locals consume instead of rice during times of crises.

During the ongoing water crisis, the price of gaplek has nose-dived from its normal Rp 350 to a mere Rp 200 per kilogram. At this price, Suntono must sell 300 kilograms of gaplek for one tank of water, while his maximum harvest is only about 1,500 kg per season.

Realizing that selling gaplek to buy water would mean starving the whole family, Suntono has been buying water on credit.

"I see no other way," he said.

Still, Suntono is relatively "lucky" compared to Darsono, 67, villager of Ponjong subdistrict, located 35 kilometers northeast of Wonosari.

This is because Suntono lives in a village 20 kilometers north of Karangrejek reservoir, the nearest source of clean water; but Darsono's home is 45 kilometers away from the nearest source of water, so a 5,000-liter tank of water costs him Rp 130,000.

"I have nothing but gaplek to sell for water," Darsono said.

Suntono and Darsono are not alone -- there are 120,000 other people in Gunungkidul who are in the same boat.

Some 200 families of Klepu and Kepanjen hamlets in Panggang subdistrict, for example, are surviving on as little water as they can. If they cannot make the 2.5-km walk to Bungkem Cave for water, they must buy it.

As trucks cannot reach the outlying villages of Panggang, water is very expensive, Rp 130,000 per 5,000 liters. Like people in Ponjong subdistrict, people buy water on credit.

Basuki Rochim, secretary of Gunungkidul administration's water crisis task force, said that this year's water shortage was "very serious".

This year, the dry season started in May, while last year it started in June.

In areas prone to drought -- mostly in the southern part of the regency -- people store water in their private ponds during the rainy season. When the stockpile is finished, they turn to the public reservoir.

"Ninety-five percent of the 27 ponds or so in the region have dried out," Basuki said.

Gunungkidul administration has been distributing water to people in need, prioritizing poor families. But the insufficient budget prevents it from reaching all stricken areas. People in hard-hit Jepitu village, Saptosari subdistrict, for example, claim they have never received any water from the government.

"Would you please ask the government to give us free water?" Wasinem, a villager of Jepitu, requested The Jakarta Post.

--Syaiful Amin