Water justice gathering in Jakarta celebrates 2015 victories and highlights struggles ahead

Citarum River Jakarta
Paddy fields on the banks of the Citarum River – source of 80% of Jakarta's drinking water.

Dec 4, Jakarta – As 2015, comes to an end, Indonesian water movements are at a critical moment in their history. A decade-long campaign came to fruition earlier this year, when Indonesian civil society groups won two major legal battles starting with the annulment of the corporate-friendly water law in February 2015, followed by an historic ruling by a Jakarta district court to terminate private contracts for the provision of water and sanitation services in Jakarta.

On December 3, more than 30 Indonesian water justice activists gathered at a meeting in Jakarta to take stock of the current state of Indonesian water struggles.

The meeting was organized by KruHa Indonesia and the Amarta Institute with the support of the international organizations Public Services International, the Transnational Institute and the Blue Planet Project.

For decades, Indonesian movements have been fighting neoliberal policies imposed by international financial institutions. Since 2004, a corporate-friendly water law has promoted the interests of beverage companies, extractive industries and other foreign corporations seeking greater access to water resources with devastating environmental and social impacts.

The Constitutional Court found that the commodification of water resulting from the 2004 water law was a violation of the constitutional principle of water as part of the commons or res commune. Since the 1990s, the World Bank had also been pushing for the privatization of public services. The water law, which defined water as a commodity, was an additional boost to multinational water and sanitation corporations who had used their ties to Suharto cronies to seek inroads within the sector.

Bolstered by the Constitutional Court ruling, the Jakarta Court found that private water companies had violated the human right to water and sanitation of the people of Jakarta by maintaining huge profit margins while sacrificing the quality of services, failing to meet their obligations to improve the network and extend services to poor neighbourhoods. This was one of the concrete impacts of the violation of the constitutional principle of water as res commune.

The impacts of exorbitant tariffs for shoddy services were felt most strongly among the urban poor, many of whom continue to rely on street vendors for drinking water. According to Aliza Yuliana of the NGO Women’s Solidarity, poor women in Jakarta have had the additional burden of attempting to find sufficient clean water to meet domestic needs. They have borne the mental stress of managing budgets to purchase water at exorbitant rates, they have been forced to wake up at odd hours to collect water according to the utility’s erratic schedule for water services in poor neighbourhoods and when water is scarce they tend to sacrifice their own needs to ensure the needs of their families are meant. The organization is collecting data on the physical, emotional and mental burden that private water and sanitation services have placed on poor women and hope to use this information in the next stages of the struggle.

Organizations gathered at the meeting discussed new challenges being faced in the wake of court victories.

In the case of the Jakarta ruling, the central government of Indonesia has joined forces with private corporations to appeal the decision to cancel private concessions. Arif Maulana one of the lawyers in the case argues their legal arguments are solid but a long drawn out case that maintains the status quo is not ideal. The legal team is currently swamped with the burden of responding to six appellants (including the two private corporations, the President of Indonesia and various government ministries).

Water activists at the meeting agreed that the next step would be to apply strong public pressure to force parties to drop the appeal. This has been a challenge Arif argues given that the media has not been sympathetic. There was general consensus that a strong social media campaign was required to foster greater support for the remunicipalization of water and sanitation services in Jakarta. While Jakarta activists focus on applying pressure on the Indonesian government, the support of global water justice organizations would be required to shame Suez, one of the corporations involved.

Among other strategies, it was noted that a public campaign requires getting the Jakarta public to believe that it is possible to have good quality, reliable and accountable water and sanitation services. Groups agreed to share information about the strong public sector models existing in other parts of the country to build faith in public sector solutions.

With regards to the Constitutional Court ruling to repeal the 2004 water law, it cannot be appealed as it is a decision of the highest court. Transnational corporations that have benefited from environmental deregulation and structural adjustment are instead pursuing other strategies to outmaneuver the public and reclaim their access to water. Corporations like Danone, which have benefited from the law are actively lobbying for a new water law that would allow them to continue their operations unimpeded. The government has prepared draft legislation and while it is widely speculated that corporations have had an opportunity to weigh in on the draft law, it has not been released for public consultation.

KruHa Indonesia, a national coalition of water justice groups is conducting its own consultations in communities throughout the country and hopes to launch a campaign for a citizen’s water law in the new year. The December 3 meeting was an opportunity to share some elements of this campaign and seek the input of Jakarta activists. Dr Hamid Chalid, a law professor, argued that excluding water from property rights had to be a key element of the campaign for a citizen’s water law. He emphasized the need a water allocation system that prioritized human rights, access for small farmers and other essential uses while eliminating the system of transferable water rights, which allows private entities to buy and sell permits for water use.