During the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election, observers and opponents argued that the scale and complexities of the capital city’s urban problems were in no way equivalent to small cities such as Surakarta, where newly installed Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo used to serve as a mayor.
When Jokowi later has to deal with Jakarta’s drinking water situation, he will realize that there is a grain of truth in this argument.
While his predecessor Fauzi Bowo seemed to be focused more on technocratic “grand strategies” to solve the overall water problem, to my knowledge, Jokowi does not have any sophisticated plan. From media interviews we can tell that Jokowi’s emphasis on Jakarta’s drinking water problem will be on quality and affordability i.e. a pro-poor approach. One of Jokowi’s promises during his campaign was to provide access to water for low-income citizens of North Jakarta, either at an affordable rate, or even for free.
But, how can he deliver on such a promise? I shall explain the complexities below.
First, water provision is a natural-legal-monopoly. What this means is that people cannot just extend pipes to a community outside the existing network because the cost of duplicating networks is high. As a result, there are usually only one or two companies serving a particular region. The monopoly is not only in terms of economics, but also a legal one. Every new entrant or operation may have to gain permission from incumbent companies.
Second, there is a trade-off between service levels and network expansion. Suppose that the companies agree to expand the network, with constraints on bulkwater sources, pressure and continuity of supply other areas might be affected. Thus, a part of Jakarta that is currently well-served might become compromised unless the government finds a new bulkwater source.
Third, there are significant costs associated with network expansion to the poor. In addition to capital expenditure on long-term assets, collection rates will become a major issue. Expanding services to low-income citizens means risking either non-payment or increased debt for suppliers. Various researches indicate that the poor have both the willingness and capacity to pay for water services. However, low-income consumers require flexibility in the form of payment-in-arrears or in installments.
Aside from the above points, unless appropriately addressed, the current governance structure of Jakarta’s water services could impede Jokowi’s pro-poor water plan. As we are aware, there are at least three main regulatory actors in Jakarta’s drinking water services: the city-owned waterworks company PAM Jaya, the concessionaires (Palyja and Aetra) and the governor.
The concession works in such a way that PAM Jaya must purchase the volume of water sold by the concessionaire to the consumer. Thus, from the concessionaire’s point of view, aside from constraints on bulkwater sources, they have no objection at all to serving the poor since they will be paid no matter what.
However, PAM Jaya may have objections to expanding the network to the poor, because if the revenue from tariff collection is not enough to cover the cost, then PAM Jaya will have to borrow money to pay the concessionaire. This means that if the poor cannot pay or can only pay in arrears, PAM Jaya will be in debt to the private sector. It is worth noting that at the moment, PAM Jaya already has huge debts with the private sector.
Another consequence of the above system is that PAM Jaya’s debt would reflect upon the concessionaire’s balance sheet and affect its overall financial health. Put simply: connecting to the poor may affect the collection rates, low collection rates means that PAM Jaya would be in debt to the concessionaire and in turn PAM Jaya’s debt to the concessionaire means higher account receivables in the concessionaire balance sheet. If the concessionaires only have high account receivables but lack cash, how can they have enough funds to invest in further network expansion and finance the existing operations and maintenance?
What the above shows is that there are structural disincentives in connecting to the poor. The concessionaire might be able to resort to outside financing for cash that would support a pro-poor program but for PAM Jaya this could be perceived as a liability that put strains on its balance sheet. A direct interventionist approach will also not work in Jakarta because it is legally impossible. Jokowi will soon find out that the governance of Jakarta water services is a complex web of various actors and interests, not only local and national, but also international. The nature of private sector participation with foreign investment means that the corporations investing in water services are backed by international treaties.
Any disputes could provoke intervention not only from the central government, but could also take place through diplomatic channels. This has already occurred in the past.
All of these challenges should not discourage Jokowi from his initial plan to provide services to the poor. There are several things that Jokowi could do to advance his water-for-the-poor program.
He should first address the lack of incentives from regulatory actors in connecting to the poor. Next, he should consult the poor on how they want to be connected to the network. The poor, together with companies and other actors should sit together to discuss the issue. Finally, Jokowi should try to reform the existing legislation which penalizes the poor for late payments.
As I have said, low-income citizens require flexibility in payments but the current legislation restricts this. In order to achieve all this, of course, he needs sufficient support from the Jakarta City Council.
The author is a senior water law consultant at a Melbourne-based company.