Jakarta’s Pandemic Water Stress: Hitting the Economy and the Urban Poor

By |2024-01-04T14:05:12+01:00September 30th 2020|Finance, Gender and Inequalities|

The Covid-19 pandemic increases the already existing water scarcity in Indonesia’s capital, affecting already disadvantaged inhabitants most of all, writes Akash Sahu.

Jakarta: Growing and Sinking

Indonesia’s capital Jakarta is home to more than 10 million people and contributes17 per cent to national GDP. The island of Java, where Jakarta is located, has experienced longer dry seasons and wetter wet seasons due to climate change. Unregulated urban growth has left little space for water to percolate into the ground. Furthermore, the lack of harvesting infrastructure causes all excess water runs off, often causing floods. The green area in the city has reduced from 29 per cent in 2007 to 9 per cent in 2013, reflecting massive construction activities. All 13 rivers that intersect the city are heavily polluted.

Jakarta takes 80 per cent of its water from the Jatiluhur Dam on the Citarum River, and 20 per cent from Cisadane and Krukut River. The PAM Jaya Company is the supervising authority for private operators Palyja and Aetra that manage the water supply to the residents. However, due to limited coverage, about 30 per cent of Jakarta’s population in 2017 was dependent on groundwater, which has become increasingly unusable due to contamination by septic tanks and faecal matter. About 50 per cent of shallow wells are contaminated by sewage, and 10 per cent by iron and manganese. Excessive water abstraction has led to soil subsidence and fast sinking of the city. It is estimated that by 2050, 95 per cent of North Jakarta will be submerged.

Jakarta’s Water Challenges

The brunt of water scarcity has been heavier on the city’s poor since the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting their health and economic security. Due to a lack of piped connections, residents resort to an informal practice of buying water from their neighbours called ‘nyelang’. In Penjaringan sub-district of Jakarta, a Habitat International report found that 88.23 per cent of poorest residents practice nyelang, compared to only 11.76 per cent of higher income households in the same area. The water bought in this manner costs more than nine times than water from a municipality. According to World Bank, these households spend up to 25 per cent of their monthly income on water, adding to their further impoverishment.

Additionally, incidences of flooding have increased substantially since 2000. The city faced major floods in 2002, 2007, 2013 and 2020. According to some estimates, the economic loss soared to as high as 800 million US dollars in the 2007 floods. This figure does not include the loss due to major disruption in logistical networks.

Jakarta’s major problems include lack of wastewater treatment facilities. Only 5 per cent of the city area is covered by sewerage system, and 85 per cent of wastewater is directly drained into the water bodies. Most households manage their sewage through septic tanks, but these tanks often leak and pollute the groundwater. In a bid to relieve water stress by expanding waste water treatment facilities, the government has announced construction of Wastewater Treatment Plant (IPAL) which also includes Moving Bed Biofilm Reactor in 2019. More treatment plants will come up in about 14 zones across the city and are expected to be fully functional by 2050.

However, experts have argued that these zones are quite large in area and need to be sufficiently integrated with residential colonies, as there are no secondary grids connecting them to treatment plants. Often the existing plants have been underutilised because the sludge is transported from colonies through trucks.

Health Implications of Water Scarcity

The poor in Jakarta face a clear disadvantage during the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein constant hand-washing and overall sanitation has naturally increased the water demand. Jakarta alone has more than 51,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as on September 11, 2020, and a bulk of total cases in adjoining Java.

Untreated water increases the risk of water-borne diseases at the time of pandemic, and the spread of dengue fever has added to the burden of diseases. Slum areas are especially vulnerable, as most of them do not have sewage and sanitation facilities. They will not be covered in the government’s master plan of sewerage system and wastewater treatment. Being so prone to diseases, including most recently COVID-19, would severely affect the ability of labour among the underprivileged sections, threatening their primary source of income.

Economic Implications of Water Scarcity

Indonesia’s economic crisis is the most severe in two decades, recording GDP shrinkage of 5.32 per cent between April and June, 2020, whereas Jakarta’s economy has shrunk by 8.22 per cent in the same period. In 2015, there were 35,000 small and micro industries employing 117,000 people in Jakarta; they are likely to suffer the most from the economic crisis.

The economic crisis is aggravated by water scarcity. For example, the construction sector of Jakarta, exceeding a 26 per cent share in national construction industry, employs more than 425,000 permanent workers. This industry is not only labour-intensive, but also demands consistent availability of large amount of water.

Furthermore, despite being an urbanised region, Jakarta supports large number of dairy cattle and is the fourth largest milk producer among 32 provinces in the country, with more than 5.2 million litres of annual production. Unavailability of water would have a debilitating impact on the highly water-intensive dairy industry.

How to Relieve Water Stress?

Focussed efforts in eliminating water stress will save the city’s economy and its vulnerable residents. Immediate measures are required to ease the current situation, like subsidised municipal water tankers. Greater integration of wastewater treatment networks and harvesting infrastructure will allow for lesser dependency of water import into the city.

The IPAL Sewage Treatment Plant is expected to provide only 8.64 million litres per day (MLD) of clean water – but total wastewater produced in Jakarta is 2500 MLD. Therefore, sewage treatment is one promising area to relieve water stress in the city.

Groundwater abstraction must be prevented to check soil subsidence and disease-spread. During the pandemic, it is even more essential to adopt a community-based approach for policy formulation on water management. The diverse sections of population in Jakarta can offer varying feedback that will help the government create a more inclusive water policy, aimed at universal access and conservation, and derived from a bottom-up approach.

Akash Sahu