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To fetch a pail of water ...

By Duncan Graham - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The trade of the urban water carrier is medieval. It started long before the discovery of steel and the ability to shape it into piping. But these remnants of a pre-industrial age still ply the kampongs of Indonesia’s big cities, dragging crude two-wheeled carts awash with plastic drums of clean, but not potable, water.

These traders have bought the water from anyone with a tap that’s connected to the public supply. By the time this essential commodity is doled out to the end users, usually in pails of just a few litres, the price has jumped to 33 times the standpipe cost.

Good business for the supplier, but a raw deal for the consumer. And this is no niche market: 40 per cent of Indonesians don’t have access to piped water, so those who can’t afford the water carts use rivers for their ablutions. Watching waterways can be a relaxing pastime in other countries, but the stench and colour of Indonesia’s trash-choked rivers is not a savory experience.


This grossly unfair trade in water was exposed in a World Bank report titled Voices of the Poor. The business exists because public utilities believe that if they install piped water in the poorest kampongs users wouldn’t have the money to pay their monthly bills like residents in upmarket areas.

But the World Bank researchers who undertook what they claimed was “the most comprehensive assessment of poverty in Indonesia for the last ten years” say the poor can and will pay for cheap tap water.

On the surface it seems like an easy-fix issue demanding no high-tech solutions. Extend the reticulation, install a meter and register users. It’s not difficult paying bills in Indonesia where officials make regular visits to homes to collect dues and the culture tolerates tiny trades. It’s even possible to buy single cigarettes while basic commodities, like washing powder are sold in sachets affordable to those with little cash. And that’s a lot of people.

The Indonesian government reckons about 40 million live below the poverty line of spending US$2 a day, with a further 100 million teetering on the edge. In total that’s more than half the population.

But the water suppliers, known as PDAMs, are in a financial mess of their own. In the post-Soeharto shake-up they were transferred to local governments and many have become insolvent. They’ve been shackled by restrictions on borrowing so can’t spend on boosting services.

All that’s lacking is the political will to implement a new system - and that’s where the problem lies - not with lack of funds.


In fact the country is awash with cash according to a just released public expenditure review assembled by the World Bank along with the Indonesian Government. The review trumpeted: “Indonesia’s post-crisis period is over; the country now has sufficient financial resources to address its development needs.” This is the result of frugal accounting, revenue boosts and slashing subsidies - policies that have produced a US$15 billion windfall.

This is the biggest boost to the coffers since the 1973-74 oil shortage when prices suddenly quadrupled as a result of the Yom Kippur war, giving primary producers like Indonesia massive profits.

But how to spend this sudden surge of money? In the days when iron-fisted General Soeharto ran the country all expenditure was determined in Jakarta.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Duncan Graham

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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