Towards 100 Years of Tap Water in Jakarta

Re-posted from FLOWs, the Water Governance Blog at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education

Jakarta piped water system is almost a hundred years old. Nila Ardhianie and Marie Belland argue that it has not changed much since the colonial times, carrying a legacy of social inequality and ecological risks.

Water instalation plant in Pejompongan Jakarta (Credits: Nila Ardhianie)

On December 23, 1922, residents of Batavia, especially those from Europe, experienced tap water from springs in Bogor for the first time. The word leding (water flowing through closed pipelines) was taken from the name of the water management company at that time, “Water Leidingen Bedrijf van Batavia”.

Batavia, founded at the mouth of the Ciliwung River, was built similarly to a city in the Netherlands, it was therefore often called the “Queen of the East”. Since 1730 however, because of not being able to manage the canals, residents died from malaria and cholera. Batavia later got the nickname “Graveyard of the East”. As a result of this epidemic, European residents moved from coastal settlements in North Jakarta to the south in Weltevreden (Gambir, Senen, Menteng, and surrounding areas).

To improve health, they began abandoning the use of river water in 1873 and started digging wells to obtain groundwater, which was considered more hygienic. Water was distributed using communal hydrants, that were monitored regularly, to approximately 8,000 European residents living around Cikini, Gondangdia, Tanah Abang, Petojo and Salemba. On the other hand, most indigenous people still used rivers or public hydrants to meet their daily needs.

The use of groundwater persisted for half a century until the discovery of the Ciburial spring in Bogor, whose water started to flow in 1922 to Batavia through a 54-kilometer long channel. The year 1922 was chosen as the anniversary of PAM Jaya, a drinking water company owned by the DKI (Jakarta Capital District) Provincial Government, because it is considered an essential milestone in water services that water can be used directly from pipes without having to clean it, such as using groundwater. This system was designed to serve 90 percent of European households with a standard consumption of 140 liters/person/day. After this era, there was no significant investment in the clean water sector because sequentially, the Great Depression in 1930 strongly affecting the colonies, World War I and II broke out.

The era of modern water services in Jakarta began in 1957, when the Pejompongan I Water Treatment Plant began operating to treat clean water distributed from Jatiluhur, which is about 70 km away (Syaukat, 2000; Colombijn dan Coté, 2014; Nasution, 2016). At that time, the service capacity had been multiplied by almost seven. Furthermore, the government invested heavily in building new installations, increasing the capacity of water installations, and adding networks. Government investment stopped as Jakarta’s water management was handed over to the private sector for 25 years in 1998. Until the contract period almost expired (2023), there has been no additional extensive water service facilities in Jakarta.

Next year marks a century of piped water in Jakarta; unfortunately, many Jakarta residents still do not have access to the water network. Kompas’ coverage of the Friday, June 11, 2021 edition provides an accurate picture of the current reality in Jakarta. The lack of access to clean water opens the gap for various frauds, with some cases of water operator staff illegally selling water and offering connections to poor communities at much higher prices than the official ones.

Water meter and pipeline in Jati Baru Jakarta (Credits: Nila Ardhianie)

With Jakarta’s population of 10.6 million people, plus the need for commuters, there is a need for 1.1 billion cubic meters of water per year. Data from the DKI Jakarta Drinking Water Service Regulatory Agency shows that the water sold in 2020 is 342.4 million cubic meters, thus piped water only supplies 32 percent of the population’s needs, the rest uses groundwater.

After one hundred years, it turns out that water management in Jakarta has not changed much since the colonial era. The system is still the same, namely a combination of centralized piped water and the survival of residents who use groundwater and river water directly from the source without treatment.

In a city with a high population density, groundwater use should be reduced; groundwater is usually used directly without any treatment, such as the addition of chemicals and filtration to reduce health risks. Thus, if the groundwater used is polluted, the user is also potentially contaminated. Various studies in Jakarta show that there are e-coli and detergent content in groundwater. This happens because high population density makes it impossible to keep a safe distance between drinking water sources and septic tanks at home. In addition, most of the wastewater in Jakarta is still discharged directly into water bodies, so it has the potential to contaminate water. This is different from piped water which uses raw water that has been treated and channeled into a closed system so that the potential risk of contamination can be relatively suppressed. The use of groundwater also causes Jakarta to experience land subsidence.

Similarly, groundwater exploitation in urban context is a driver for land subsidence in Semarang, the capital city of Central Java. It is a topic of concern for GroundUp, ‘A practice-based analysis of groundwater governance for integrated urban water resource’ involving scholars and activists from Indonesia and the Netherlands, as well as a case study of the EU-funded program NEWAVE – Next Water Governance. In 2020, GroundUp launched a survey to characterize groundwater use in different areas of Semarang, it showed that in unserved coastal areas (such as Tugu and Genuk districts), residents rely almost entirely on groundwater for their daily needs. Moreover, subsidence increases the contamination of groundwater, as well as frequent tidal flooding, which forces residents to elevate their house on a regular basis and causes of waterborne diseases. Semarang example illustrates how groundwater management is decisive in increasing public health for coastal residents.

To improve the quality of public health, Jakarta needs a program to provide full access to its entire population. A comprehensive strategic plan developed in a participatory manner needs to be prepared and implemented collaboratively by the central and local governments. Article 8 of Law No. 17 of 2019 concerning Water Resources states that “The right of the people to water guaranteed by the state as referred to in Article 6 is a minimum daily basic need“. This is a strong foundation for the Capital City’s clean water program and budget.

Climate change, increasing socio-economic activities, land conversion and pollution that make quality water increasingly scarce are factors contributing to increase difficulty of meeting water needs, while the population continues to grow. There is an increasing awareness of healthy living requiring more and more water. Therefore, future water supply programs need to be novel. For instance, by prioritizing using local water, with technology and law enforcement, Jakarta’s low-quality river water can be processed to become raw water. In the future, carrying water from tens of kilometers away will be even more difficult because the people in the area where the water source is located also need it. Beside large-scale infrastructure requiring significant investments potentially increases the burden on the soil in already subsiding areas.

The use of water-saving technology equipment, reducing water use, reprocessing water, and using innovations that are already widely available, must be the primary strategy. Small-scale treatment plants and utilizing local water resources close to the people they serve, are necessities to prioritize. The potential for wastewater to be treated is also huge; rather than being directly disposed and polluting water bodies, this potential resource needs to be treated. Innovations in the clean water and wastewater sector have been significant; proper utilization for the needs of water supply is needed to ensure access for the entire population. Tomorrow’s risk is being built today: it is crucial for all of us to make optimal efforts so that the sustainability of water resources becomes a portrait of Jakarta in the future.

This article was originally published in the daily newspaper KOMPAS on June 16, 2021. KOMPAS is the largest national newspaper in Indonesia.