Potable tap water still a pipe dream for Nusantara, for now

Last year, the Nusantara Capital City authority unveiled plans for a water system that plans have found their way into the New Capital City Law.

Ruth Dea Juwita

Ruth Dea Juwita

The Jakarta Post


Construction continues on the Sepaku Semoi Dam in North Penajam Paser, East Kalimantan, on Feb. 21, 2023. The dam is to supply water to the new capital city.(Antara/Indrianto Eko Suwarso)

July 11, 2023

JAKARTA – The new capital city’s promise of drinkable tap water could become the basis for potable water infrastructure to be rolled out elsewhere in the country, but experts have expressed doubts about whether this issue will be high up on the government’s agenda.

Last year, the Nusantara Capital City (IKN) authority unveiled plans for a water system, and those plans have found their way into the New Capital City Law.

Bosman Batubara, a water expert and researcher at Utrecht University, has taken a close look at the law and said he found stipulations on infrastructure for wastewater, drinking water and the control of water damage, such as flooding.

However, “I did not find one explicit statement that the water [in the new city] will be drinkable from the tap,” Bosman told The Jakarta Post on June 29, adding that the infrastructure plans in the annex made no mention of this.

Boy Ramadhan, sales manager with water utility company Grundfos Indonesia, told the Post in his Jakarta office in late June that “it’s still too early” to know whether the authority would install a potable water system in the city.

However, he expressed his appreciation for plans to make the city’s water system “sustainable, green and climate resilient” from upstream to downstream, adding that Grundfos would provide the pumps for the Sepaku Semoi Dam water intake.

Endra Atmawidjaja, who advises the Public Works and Housing Ministry on technology, industry and the environment, gave no definite answer when asked about water in the future capital.

“We will design [the road map] this year, start the construction next year, and at the end of next year, we will hopefully [taste] the water,” he told the Post on June 27.

“Making water potable from the tap is expensive,” Bosman said, explaining that Indonesian infrastructure typically relied on a single pipe to convey water from the source to homes, whereas it should ideally involve two or more pipes to separate potable from sanitary water.

Moreover, there was a risk that low-pressure pipes would allow contaminated water to seep in through cracks and misaligned joints, which was one of many reasons why urban centers still lacked potable tap water.

“If what we mean by potable water is water that you can drink straight from the tap, that’s going too far,” Bosman replied, when asked whether potable water was a priority in the country.

“State-owned water utility company [PDAM] still seems to be struggling even to provide water that is drinkable by boiling,” he added.

He recalled his personal experience with poor water supply. “In [Semarang], where I used to live, the PDAM water was sometimes muddy and had worms in it, [and that is] a big city. How can you drink that?”

Boy concurred, “in Jakarta, the water is not drinkable […]. Almost 60 percent [of Jakartans] still rely on groundwater, which means [they rely on their own] water supply”.

State-owned PDAM, which supplies tap water across the country and has branches in each region, carries the term “drinking water” in its name.

“PDAM water is not used as drinking water but only for cooking and bathing,” said Bosman, even though the water distributed to houses has gone through a treatment process.

Treatment plants in the country still conventionally utilize chlorine as a chemical filter to purify water. “There’s a lack of regular maintenance of the infrastructure [and] a lot of the sourced water is far from consumable quality,” Boy said.

Mohammad Mova Al’Afghani, an expert on water law and director of the Center of Regulation, Policy and Governance (CRPG), explained what he sees as the key issue for providing potable water:

“The problem is that the government always expects funds to come from the private sector, because the government’s fiscal budget is limited,” he told the Post on June 27, as “the state budget can only accommodate up to 37 percent of the water infrastructure funding needs”.

To illustrate the government’s dependence on private funds for water management, Mova cited statements made in March by the public works ministry’s director general for infrastructure financing, Herry Trisaputra Zuna.

“If we want to achieve the 2030 [United Nations Sustainable Development Goal] SDG target, we must be able to invite the private sector,” Herry said during a panel discussion held as a precursor to the 10th World Water Forum, which will be held in Bali next year.

A report on the forum’s website cites Herry as saying that the government required three times the current investment level to close water infrastructure funding gaps and provide access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030.

Mova contended that attracting private funds was “not an easy task” and noted that Herry himself had alluded to that by explaining in said discussion that the financing scheme would need to be “affordable for the community but still attractive to the private sector”.

Besides financing, there are other obstacles to safe water projects, like land acquisition, spring sharing and water pollution.

Everybody needs to drink

However, Bosman said, there was demand for potable water because “everybody needs to drink”.

The government did “see potable water as a priority”, Mova said, as reflected in the millennium development goals (MDGs) and the 2030 SDGs, but there was a tradeoff to be made. “PDAM has the choice of either replacing pipes in one area to ensure potable water or extending the network to other areas, where the water would not be drinkable but require boiling,” he said.

In other words, PDAM, given its limited resources, had to focus either on quality or quantity.

“If I were to choose, it would be [ensuring greater] access,” he emphasized, even if that meant the water was not “directly drinkable”.

The government’s 2020-2024 national midterm development plan (RPJMN) stipulates a target of 100 percent of households with access to safe drinking water nationwide by 2024, up from 91 percent at present.

The climate crisis with increased threats of droughts, floods and landslides complicates matters further.

“Drought definitely has a direct impact on water supply,” Mova said. “Floods contaminate water installations and turn water mucky, and landslides damage the pipelines,” he added.

In the light of the environmental emergency, it was import to be “realistic and well-prepared”, Mova said, and “the country should not pursue the target of potable water, but rather prioritize water supply to prevent drought disasters”.

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