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Water Challenges in Indonesia

Although Indonesia enjoys 21 percent of the total freshwater available in the Asia-Pacific region, many of the country’s water security issues are tied to its rapid development, poor urban infrastructure, and stretched institutional capacity. Economic growth has not been accompanied by a corresponding expansion of infrastructure and institutional capacity. As a result, nearly one out of two Indonesians lacks access to safe water, and more than 70 percent of the nation’s 220 million people rely on potentially contaminated sources. The country also has undergone significant land-use changes, and deforestation and extractive industries have polluted, altered the landscape, and left many areas more vulnerable to extreme events such as monsoon floods.

Indonesia has become a pollution hotspot as a result of its rapid urbanization and economic development. Expanding waste streams are evident across the growing industrial, domestic, and agriculture sectors. Extractive industries account for much of the development, and waste from industrial and commercial processes is increasingly making its way into both surface water and groundwater supplies. The country—particularly its urban slums—sorely lacks wastewater treatment, and the basic sanitation infrastructure necessary to prevent human excrement from contaminating water supplies is virtually nonexistent. Roughly 53 percent of Indonesians obtain their water from sources that are contaminated by raw sewage, and this exposure greatly increases human susceptibility to water-related diseases.

Located along the equator, Indonesia is surrounded by warm waters that create relatively stable year-round temperatures. Monsoons drive seasonal variations. Yet climate change threatens to disrupt the regular, alternating periods of rain and arid dryness. The dry season may become more arid, driving water demand, while the rainy season may condense higher precipitation levels into shorter periods, increasing the possibility of heavy flooding while decreasing the ability to capture and store water. Increased rainfall and flood conditions facilitate the spread of disease in areas where the population lacks access to clean water and sanitation. Thus, managing water scarcity is a critical challenge for Indonesia and for many Southeast Asian nations with similar climates.

The tsunami that struck Aceh Province in 2004 demonstrated the potentially devastating effects that weak infrastructure, poor planning, and inadequate governance can create. In fact, environmental destruction associated with deforestation and unmanaged development has left many parts of the country extremely vulnerable to floods, landslides, and tsunamis. Indonesia has lost roughly 72% of its forest cover over the last 50 years. Large barren hillside areas and underlying soils, which are subject to heavy precipitation, greatly increase the likelihood and severity of floods and landslides. When flooding occurs, urban infrastructure is quickly overwhelmed, leading to sewage spillover and further contamination. In addition, post-event cleanup and repair costs can be immense.

Flood-related natural disasters may be connected to higher incidences of soft tissue, respiratory, diarrheal, and vector-borne diseases. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, the World Health Organization warned of immediate, increased risk of waterborne diseases and strongly recommended uninterrupted provision of safe drinking water and implementation of standard treatment protocols in health facilities as a first line of defense against a potential epidemic. The difficulty of carrying out precautionary measures following another major natural disaster puts the health of both survivors and emergency response workers at high risk.

The enormous challenge of environmental degradation directly feeds into many of Indonesia’s water security problems. Vulnerability to extreme events and continued pollution of water supplies pose the greatest challenges. Pollution and compromised sanitary conditions in much of the country may lead to epidemics and severe health problems, testing institutional capacities. Rapid urban growth—combined with natural geographic and climatic conditions—will serve to compound social and political pressure.

Based on Asia Society Materials

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