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Jakarta Struggles to Provide Clean Water to All


The well water these women use to wash clothes is cloudy and brackish. Since piped water is still limited in Penjaringan, they mix it with bleach and keep the clean water for drinking

The well water these women use to wash clothes is cloudy and brackish. Since piped water is still limited in Penjaringan, they mix it with bleach and keep the clean water for drinking

Like many big cities in the developing world, the city of Jakarta, with a population of nine million people, is struggling to provide clean water to all its residents. In some poor neighborhoods international organizations are trying to help, but, their impact is minimal because the infrastructure problems are so complex and expensive to fix.

Water flowing from an open tap is a luxury for only a few people in Penjaringan, one of Jakarta's densest neighborhoods. The French-run PT Palyja, one of two private companies that control Jakarta's water supply, provides only a communal tank for the local residents to use. Even the smallest daily activity, like brushing one's teeth, requires a trip to the tank, where people pay a large portion of their meager salaries for containers of cloudy, brackish water.

But in 2008 life changed for about 55 families in Penjaringan when the international aid organization Mercy Corps installed a separate tank and ran water lines to households able to pay the $20 start-up fee.

The program known as Master Meter provided these families with ease of access, cleaner water and lower costs. The container water is at least twice as expensive as the running water from the Mercy Corps program. Ibu Rosecta, who makes sweet frozen popsicles to sell to neighborhood children, says access to clean, running water has saved her family money.

She says lower costs have eased her family's financial burden because they used to spend much more on water.

Jakarta's water problems start with poor infrastructure that allows human waste and rubbish to contaminate supplies that travel roughly 80 kilometers from the hills where Jakarta's main reservoir is located. Even after being processed at the city's water treatment plants the water takes another journey through leaky pipes that ensure it is no longer drinkable once it reaches people's homes.

Firdaus Ali works at Jakarta's water regulatory body. He says supply shortages and badly maintained pipes keep water from getting where it is needed.

"The main issue is we don't have enough raw water for Jakarta. And the second one is the leakage," he said. "The water losses are so huge. I can tell you around 50 percent of the total water that we produce becomes non-revenue for the system."

Another problem is access. Connecting informal communities to the city's water pipeline is a challenge because many are living on the land illegally. Piping water to these neighborhoods would formalize them, says Firdaus.

"That's why the city of Jakarta said no direct access to the community but we can provide them with the Master Meter, we can also provide them through water kiosks and also public hydrants," he said.

A small group controls the communal water tank, forcing residents to pay high prices for containers of water that they then must cart back to their houses in Penjaringan, one of Jakarta's densest neighborhoods

A small group controls the communal water tank, forcing residents to pay high prices for containers of water that they then must cart back to their houses in Penjaringan, one of Jakarta's densest neighborhoods

What happens in many poor neighborhoods is that a small group takes control of the water kiosk or communal tank and sets its own tariffs for the water it sells by container. Firdaus says these middlemen often charge exorbitant rates. Since Mercy Corps began providing running water to Penjaringan, the men who sell water by container have been complaining about lost revenues.

Pak Wiranto, the neighborhood leader, is not sympathetic. He says the people here are poor. The middlemen would be free to continue selling to them if it was at a price they could afford.

While the middlemen inflate the retail price, the distributors say the government sets prices artificially low. The PT Palyja water company has repeatedly asked the government to raise water tariffs. It says it needs more money to bring better water to more people.

Other developing countries also face problems with inequitable pricing and raw water shortages - which is what really keeps communities from having clean, piped water. Mercy Corps says they cannot expand their program because of inadequate water supplies.

Bringing more water to Jakarta will require investment in new and improved infrastructure. Officials say efforts are already underway, but for now in areas like Penjaringan the poor continue to pay more for less water.

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