In a landmark ruling, Indonesia’s Supreme Court this week ordered the government to restore public water services to residents in Jakarta after finding private companies “failed to protect” their right to water.

Inadequate water supply service caused by privatization of Jakarta’s water supply has forced residents of low-income areas to buy expensive drinking water from street vendors and bathe in polluted public wells. 

© 2015 Nila Ardhianie

The court ordered the government to immediately revoke its contracts with two private water utilities and hand responsibility for public water supply services back to a public water utility.

The Supreme Court decision quoted residents of low-income areas in North Jakarta who blamed limited access to clean water and sanitation services on the failure of the private companies to adequately service their neighborhoods. Those residents described how the firms, PT PAM Lyonnaise Jaya and PT Aetra Air Jakarta, provided only sporadic water service, mostly limited to evening hours. The two companies were also implicated in denying water access services to residents unable to pay their bills. These residents were forced to buy expensive drinking water from street vendors and bathe in polluted public wells. “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” concluded three United Nations water experts in 2014.

Water privatization in Jakarta began in 1997 under then-President Suharto, who ordered the privatization in 1995, arguing it would improve service. Suharto ordered Jakarta’s public water utility to be divided into two operations, giving one half to a joint venture between British firm Thames Water and an Indonesian firm owned by his son. The government awarded the other privatized water operation to a joint venture between French firm Suez and Indonesia’s Salim Group, a company chaired by longtime Suharto friend Liem Sioe Liong.

The privatization contracts included guarantees that lower-income consumers would pay lower water tariffs. However, 12 residents and organizations that filed the class action lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court ruling argued that the companies deliberately underserviced lower-income consumers to prioritize higher-revenue service to wealthier consumers.

The onus is now on the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to implement the court’s decision and ensure lower-income residents are no longer deprived of their rights to water and sanitation. The government should also scrutinize similar water privatization contracts in other areas including Batam, Palembang, and Banten to determine if similar discriminatory abuses are occurring there.