Photo: Boy drinks from a tap at a NEWAH WASH water project in Puware Shikhar, Udayapur District, Nepal. Photo by Jim Holmes for AusAID. Source: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2018

‘Right To Water’ Should Be A Major Human Right, Say Indonesian Women Activists

By Kalinga Seneviratne

JAKARTA (IDN) – Indonesian women activists, fighting an uphill battle to reverse a 20-year old water privatization project signed by former authoritarian ruler Suharto with French and British companies with the support of a $92 million loan from the World Bank, argue that the United Nations and the international human rights community need to prioritize ‘right to water’ as a major human right.

“We are seeing that a lot of communal resources like land, water, even the air, are not belonging to the community anymore. It’s a shifting of the perspective,” argues Dinda Nuur Annisaa Yura, National Program Coordinator, the Coalition of Jakarta Residents Opposed to Water Privatization (KMMSAJ).

“… there is this international perspective how much money they can make from the trees, water, the air and the land. That’s the main problem. We don’t see water as a single problem but it is the global economic system,” she adds.

“Right to water is a human right and government should manage the water and treat it as a human right. We have on our constitution that guarantee” she added in an interview with IDN.

Dinda, who speaks English fluently, is part of a movement of some 5,700 Indonesian grassroots women who are fighting to ensure that affordable drinking water remains a right and does not become a privilege of the rich.

“Water is a daily problem women face,” argues Dinda, explaining why the women are in the forefront of the protest campaign. “Everyday women wait until 2 am for water (when tap water becomes available for poor households)…. women work more with water for food preparation, washing dishes, washing clothes, that’s why women face real struggle when water is not coming.”

Late last year (2017), the campaign won a major court battle in the Supreme Court. In fact they won the first legal battle in 2015 in the District Court, when they sued the government for violating peoples’ rights by privatizing their water supplies. The corporations named in the lawsuit along with the government appealed against it and overturned the earlier verdict.

Then they took the case to the Supreme Court and won in October 2017. With Indonesia due to host the IMF and World Bank annual meeting in Bali from October 8-14, 2018, the women groups are calling for international solidarity from similar civil society groups globally to come to Indonesia to join them in the protests, to ensure that the government honour the Supreme Court verdict in their favour.

With Indonesia a party to the secret negotiations to introduce yet another free trade agreement – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – Dinda feels that it is more important today than ever before for the peoples’ movements across the world to unite to force the UN and its member governments to recognize the communities’ right to their resources.

“Why we oppose the RCEP is that we don’t want secret agreements. We need people to people agreements for people to benefit from the trading system. We need initiatives where people can produce something and then trade it,” she says.

If the RCEP comes into force, it is expected to go even beyond the discredited TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) to give foreign companies the right to sue governments if their policies affect a foreign investor’s profits from agreements they signed with the government.

The water privatization agreement signed between the Indonesian government and two foreign companies is a typical example of how a trade deal like RCEP would protect foreign companies’ right to make profits out of local resources with the government having no say on how it is done once a deal is signed, that would make constitutional guarantees to protect peoples’ resources redundant and democratic principles of people choosing their representatives to serve them a joke.

In June 1997, the city-owned PT PAM Jaya signed two 25-year agreements with two companies – Suez Environment from France and Thames Water from the UK – with the contract specifying that they would pay off PAM Jaya’s debts and to help improve the services.

In 1991, the World Bank lent $92 million to Indonesia to be used by PAM Jaya for the same purpose, and when the deal was signed the public company covered only 45 percent of the households with tap water. The British company formed a joint-venture company PT Kekat Thames Airindo with the then Indonesian President Suharto’s son Sigit Harjo judanto, while the French went into a joint-venture with the Salim Group owned by Suharto’s top business crony Sudono Salim. After Suharto’s downfall in 1998 both fled the country.

When the KMMSAJ embarked on a litigation campaign in 2015, from PAM Jaya’s own admission, only 60 percent of Jakarta’s population was covered by tap water. The target set in the 1997 agreement was to reach 98 percent tap water coverage of the teeming capital’s households.

Mohammad Reza Sahib, National Coordinator of the Peoples’ Coalition for the Right to Water (KRuHA) told IDN that at the time of the signing of the deal “it was a dark era” and people had no say in what the government did. After the force of a people’s movement in 1998 overthrew Suharto, Reza said that there was euphoria of democracy and it took the people awhile to realize that what they got was an era “dominated by elite politic fragmentation”.

Beginning in 2008, it took them over three years to turn research into community awareness campaigns on the impact of water privatization. They also had to use a corruption angle to get media attention.

On the back of the euphoria on the dawn of democracy in this Muslim majority country of over 250 million people, Indonesia saw an expansion of community radio. There are now over 400 community radio stations in 20 provinces across the archipelago. But, Siti Infirohah Al-Farida, Capacity Building Coordinator of JRKI (Indonesia Community Radio Network) told IDN that water privatization (which is happening in many other cities outside Jakarta as well) has not attracted the attention of her sector.

“I hope that in the future we can build synergies with the NGOs (working on the issue) and get help to have a better understanding of the issue of water privatization, so that community radio managers have a perspective on water rights for their communities”, she noted, agreeing that community radio with its grassroots outreach could be an useful tool to mobilise people.

Reza thinks that by going on the litigation path, it could be a faster way to get local governments to act. “If the case is strong, the government will have to choose between investor’s interest and public interest,” he points out.

“There is no guarantee the government will take public interest path,” admits Reza. “The pressure has to be maintained both at local and global levels, with international campaigns.”

Thus, they are building international processes with UN human rights bodies and Business and Human Rights groups, including looking at the possibility of taking a human rights violation case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. “Many things need to be done. The fight is far from over,” he says. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 August 2018]

Photo: Boy drinks from a tap at a NEWAH WASH water project in Puware Shikhar, Udayapur District, Nepal. Photo by Jim Holmes for AusAID. Source: Wikimedia Commons

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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