Reza sits on the couch in the reception area of KRuHA’s shared office in South Jakarta, chatting with two visiting PhD researchers about the current state of Jakarta’s water crisis. KRuHA is the Indonesian language acronym for the People’s Coalition for the Right to Water, and, with the help of an SYLFF Summer Research Grant, I travelled to Jakarta in August to research Indonesia’s small, but vocal, water justice movement. Specifically I was interested in how this movement was engaging the human right to water (see another blog post of mine on the evolution of this new right) as an advocacy tool, and the sorts of opportunities and challenges the human rights framework might present organizations like KRuHA.

Copyright KRuHA (used with permission)
Activists parody the poor quality of water supplied by Jakarta’s private water utilities


Meeting KRuHA

It’s common for students, journalists and fellow NGO activists to drop by this small office and discuss the country’s ongoing water woes, particularly those faced by Jakarta – drought, worsening pollution and decreasing quality of drinking water, increasing tariffs, and intermittent supply. These discussions do not, however, revolve around the technical aspects of water stress in Southeast Asia’s largest city; rather Reza and his colleague Hamong are concerned about what they see as an unjust system of water governance that favors corporate rather than public interests.

KRuHA describes itself as a water justice organization. Its overarching goal is to challenge the involvement of for-profit, private companies in the governance and exploitation of Indonesia’s troubled water resources. To this end, their major campaigns focus on ending the contract between the Jakarta Government and two foreign water utility companies, of which the World Bank was a key architect, and opposing the bottled water industry’s growing domination of natural springs around Java Island.

Below is a recent campaign video by KRuHA designed to raise awareness about water inequality, and promote their organizational profile.



The fight against commercialization

Upon meeting the 3 fulltime staff at KRuHA, and speaking with some of their academic affiliates, I gained a clear understanding of the struggles of an under-funded and over-worked NGO, whose colossal goal is to challenge the global economic system’s most powerful entities – the World Bank, WTO, and multi-national corporations. The central claim that KRuHA makes is that water is indispensible for human life and should, therefore, be stewarded by government in the best interests of its citizens. The commercialization of water, according to KRuHA, is morally unjust; it represents the ongoing accumulation of public goods for private (and often foreign) profit, and violates a fundamental human right.

Copyright KRuHA (used with permission)
Reza leads a protest against the private water utility concession in Jakarta

The international water justice movement, of which KRuHA is a part, is cut from the cloth of long-standing anti-globalization activism. Water is the latest frontier for the anti-globalization movement, and perceived by many as the final and most precious public good to feel the scourge of marketization. In fact, KRuHA’s staff has a long history of involvement in Indonesia’s pro-democracy and anti-globalization movement.

In the past, KRuHA, and its network of left-leaning, anti-globalization organizations, fought the battle against water-privatization in the courts. They made the case that new water laws introduced in 2004, designed by a World Bank working group, facilitated privatization of water utilities and enabled the commercialization of water resources. KRuHA argued these laws violated Indonesia’s Constitution, which articulates that government is the protector and steward of the people’s natural resources. But they lost this battle in the Constitutional Court, and ever since have been re-assessing the best way to campaign against the forces of commercialization.

Casting a wider net

After a few visits to KRuHA, I decided to cast my net wider, and conduct interviews not only with activists, but also with urban planners, development workers and representatives from Indonesia’s bottled water industry. I wanted to get a broader picture of how stakeholders in the water sector viewed organizations like KRuHA.

I was struck by the vibrancy of this sector – despite having heard frequently that Jakarta’s water system was a ‘total mess’. Conversations ran from the Australian government’s new emphasis on water infrastructure, to the World Bank’s turn toward community-based water management and public private partnerships, to the use of crowd-sourcing tools to extract information about water quality in remote areas. Everyone seemed to be getting communities involved, engaging people at the grassroots level in the management of their own water supplies.

Copyright KRuHA (used with permission)
Women hold signs at the protest calling for the human right to water to be fulfilled, and for privatization of water to be stopped

While most people in the sector did not see the new human right to water as explicitly guiding their policies or programs, I began making connections between the discourse of water as a human right, and water as a community-governed resource. In the end, my ‘wide net’ method returned a lot of interesting data, but probably served to confuse, rather than narrow, my research interests.

Back to the desk

Upon my return to New York I’ve been sifting through my data, and decided to return to my original case study: the Indonesian water justice movement’s opposition to the bottled water industry. This was actually a campaign that first took off in Canada and the US, but has spread to many different parts of the globe. What’s interesting about the Indonesia case is that a growing proportion of the population, particularly in urban areas, is increasingly dependent on the bottle for access to clean water. So launching a struggle against large, profitable companies like French-owned Aqua-Danone (which dominates the Indonesian market) is not an easy task. Conflicts have emerged around several Aqua-Danone factories in recent years, with farmers accusing the company of over-extracting water and exacerbating water stress in the area. The company has attempted to placate the communities with targeted CSR programs.

Now I’m deep in the abstract world of academic theory, buried in the literature on social movements, human rights activism and corporate social responsibility. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to go to the field and meet with people who are actually engaged in these struggles on a daily basis. It reminds me that I’m writing about people, not just theories! The people I met at KRuHA, and their friends working on water justice issues in Indonesia, are dedicated to maintaining water as a shared, public resource. This ambitious goal will not be easily achieved, but Reza and Hamong see it as a moral obligation and the most important front in their fight to challenge corporate power and protect the public good.

By Eve Warburton. Eve is in the final stages of her M.A. Human Rights Studies, writing her thesis on human rights and the water justice movement in Indonesia. Eve is an editor for RightsViews, and also works part time for Columbia’s Earth Institute and the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy.

1 Comment

  • Abdul Sindi

    Amazing how there is a significant lack of accountability on an issue of great importance.

    Nice work, and well-written article.

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