The public takes back control of water in Indonesia

27 March 2015

We have just heard that the privatisation of Jakarta’s water system has been struck down by the city court. The city’s contracts with two private water corporations were declared void, on the grounds that they had failed to meet the human rights of the citizens of Jakarta.

Global Justice Now has supported the campaign against privatised water in Jakarta. This court decision follows an 18-year struggle by activists, who work under the umbrella Coalition of Jakarta Residents Opposing Water Privatization (KMMSAJ), and who don’t believe that anything as important as water provision should be decided by the whims of the market.

The history of water privatisation in Jakarta goes back to the 1990s, when World Bank loans to the Suharto regime encouraged corporations into the water sector. In the late 1990s, with the corrupt and brutal regime still in place, British and French water corporations began to work with the government, eventually gaining exclusive rights to provide residents with water. 

While guaranteed profits flowed into the private companies, and their performance targets were repeatedly lowered, huge losses were accrued by the state-owned water operator.  Investors benefited from high water tariffs while the poor were locked out of the water system and workers’ jobs were outsourced. Just 60% of Jakarta’s residents receive piped clean water today.

Meanwhile, resistance was built through protests and rallies, court cases and election campaigns, culminating in this week’s victory. This is not the end of the story; the companies are appealing the ruling so the authorities will not take immediate action. Moreover, activists in Jakarta now have a major struggle to ensure that publically controlled water means democratically controlled water – with the poorest in Jakarta gaining access to this vital resource.

Water activist Nila Ardhianie told the press, “Together, we can build a strong public utility for all Jakartans.  We can also get help from strong public utilities, both in Indonesia and from overseas, but without the distortions of profit maximization.” It was just such a struggle against water privatisation in Bolivia that revolutionised the government of that country.

There is a wave of resistance to privatisation across the world, which is rarely reported in the media. More than 235 cities from 37 countries have remunicipalised water services over the last 15 years.

This makes the British government’s adherence to the tired old dogma that ‘the private sector knows best’ even more unacceptable. Privatisation has failed to reduce poverty time and again. Instead of privatising Nigeria’s energy sector, the British government should be helping to develop democratic public sector alternatives to improve societies around the planet.

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