Water management in Indonesia: lessons from Australia

Author: Erick Hansnata, University of Canberra

Environmental improvement is one of the key priorities of Indonesia’s latest National Medium Term Development Plan. The government has recently begun work to revitalise its 13 main river basins, which are categorised as heavily polluted.

However, the country continues to struggle to ensure access and quality of water. Institutional failure, arising from a lack of coordination between stakeholders, appears to be the main reason for this.

Indonesia’s problems with water management fall into two categories.

First, at the micro level, the country continues to struggle with ensuring access to and quality of water. The 2010 National Basic Health Research (Riskesdas) found that a high proportion of Indonesian households (32.5 per cent) rely on low-quality drinking water. Surprisingly, 83 per cent of good-quality drinking water in urban areas, and 62 per cent in rural areas, comes from commercial packaged water. This ‘commercialisation’ of drinking water adds to household spending and worsens conditions for the poor, who already spend two-thirds of their income on food.

Second, deterioration of river basins has occurred continuously for more than four decades. In 1970, there were already 22 critical river basins, which increased to 60 in 1999. A 2008 water quality survey conducted by the Ministry of Environment found that the majority of main rivers in Indonesia fall into the heavily polluted category, including iconic rivers such as the Musi River in South Sumatera, Mahakam River in East Kalimantan and Citarum River in West Java.

This indicates that extending pipe networks to improve water accessibility will not solve Indonesia’s water security problems in the absence of a comprehensive plan to revitalise its degraded river basins.

One solution would be for Indonesia to adopt Australia’s approach. Australia’s drought in the first decade of this millennium (the longest in its history) had a severe impact on communities, businesses and the environment, particularly on the Murray–Darling Basin (MDB). The MDB is a critical river system that waters approximately 40 per cent of Australia’s total agricultural production. Seventeen per cent of the Australian population (3.4 million people) also live within and around the basin and rely directly on its water.

Although Australia has a long history of regulating its rivers, the drought raised awareness of the need for long-term water security. The federal government passed the Water Act 2007, and in conjunction with the Water Amendment Act 2008 established the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to manage water in the Basin. The legislation gives MDBA the authority to implement the Basin Plan started in 2012, which aims to manage water allocation and ensure that sufficient water is allocated to the environment. The government also provides compensation through infrastructure and financial assistance to make up for the negative economic impact of the Basin Plan. Despite the existence of certain contradictions at the implementation stage such as the social benefit from ecological improvements may be not maximise, the Basin Plan and institutional change has resulted in innovations such water modelling and increased agricultural productivity with less water use.

If Indonesia were to adopt Australia’s approach to cope with its water security problems, the initial stage would be to establish a single institution consisting of related departments, communities, businesses and experts who have an interest in water sustainability. The next step would be to form a comprehensive plan which involves all interest groups. To maximise the effectiveness of the plan, the institution should also have the authority to intervene to prevent land exploitation that could restrict water infiltration.

Erick Hansnata is a PhD Candidate at NATSEM at the University of Canberra and a member of the Collaborative Research Network Murray-Darling Basin (CRN-MDBFutures).