Water defender Reza Sahib fights privatisation in Indonesia

Mohammed Reza Sahib, who fights for the right to water as a public good, has contributed to halting the privatisation of this resource in Indonesia.

curated by Emanuele Bompan

“Coalition opposing Jakarta water privatisation wins appeal”. This was the opening headline on the front page of the Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia’s main daily newspapers, on the 10th of October 2017. After just a few hours, the media buzz had brought the news to researchers, lawyers, NGOs and think tanks all over the world whose work involves identifying violations of the right to water.

“It was a historic result in the battle for the right to water as a public good,” explains Muhammad Reza Sahib, 43. Reza is an activist working for KRuHA (the People’s Coalition for The Rights to Water), and he’s one of the minds behind the landmark campaign to stop the privatisation of water resources. A challenge, however, that is still ongoing. We spoke to the water defender at his home in Jakarta, to better understand his battle.

Muhammad Reza Sahib, water defender, Indonesia
Muhammad Reza Sahib, Indonesian water defender © Sahib

Water privatisation in Indonesia

Widespread privatisation of Indonesian water resources began in 1997 under President Suharto, whose government aggressively pursued the privatisation of public companies. Around this time, the so-called “Asian Tiger” economies were facing a crisis, and the International Monetary Fund imposed Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) on all countries in need of loans. Among the conditions that came with a 92-million-dollar loan to the Indonesian government, the IMF required that the private sector participate in managing water for the city of Jakarta and its 10 million citizens.

“It was the beginning of public-private partnerships (PPP) in the realm of utilities, and created a new model for commercial agreements between government and businesses”, Reza, who prefers to be called by his middle name, explains. “In Indonesia and elsewhere, the World Bank and IMF imposed a neoliberal shift even in water management, including its privatisation within the context of macroeconomic reform packages”.

Families left without water

In Indonesia “in 2005, a law was approved allowing water to be fully privatised. But the water utility’s situation didn’t improve. Quite the opposite. Only 40 per cent of the capital’s population had direct access to the water supply and much of that being provided in certain neighbourhoods wasn’t safe for drinking. In addition, purifiers weren’t working at full capacity. Higher water bills only covered the adjustment to a private service, whose costs increased to ensure extra profits for management and investors”. This was the first major failure of public service privatisation.

“Utility companies left families who weren’t able to keep up with the constantly increasing bills without water for over five months,” Reza recounts. At this point, the government had to intervene, using taxpayers’ money to improve the service. In fact, according to the privatisation agreements, all maintenance responsibilities fell on public shoulders, and not on those of the four private companies, whose role instead was to determine prices”.

Jakarta protests
Protests in Jakarta © KRUhA

The Supreme Court victory

Discontent kept growing. “Many young activists began to organise and this is how KRuHA was born. Its goal is to bring water back under public control. We organised public events and demonstrations, increasing pressure on parliament. Then, suddenly, while the law to accelerate liberalisation was being approved in 2005, two Supreme Court judges accepted our request, for the first time, to put a stop to the privatisation agreements. They also made all documents public after properly translating them”.

The Supreme Court found that poorer citizens had to endure limited access to drinking water, with provision limited to the evening and inadequate cleaning of the sewer system. “People had to buy bottled or tank water, and many resorted to digging new wells, which impacted the aquifer’s balance,” Reza explains.

This, however, wasn’t a real victory. As international attention waned following the victory of civil society in 2015, municipal utilities in Indonesia remain subservient to private interests. “The government’s tendency to embrace privatisation is still strong in Indonesia,” the activist reports gloomily. “Adequate water management is still severely lacking because the required skills are missing in our country. While interest on the part of citizens and activists is still high, businesses – the Salim Group in particular – are still active in promoting privatisation. A new battlefront has now opened. Having been forced out of urban utility management, companies have moved their focus upstream, to dams, reservoirs and large water management infrastructure. There’s also a lot of interest in mega-infrastructure to contain the impacts of climate change”.

In fact, Jakarta itself is sinking, and there are fears that the capital will be partially submerged by 2050. “Large sea walls are needed but our fear is that, if privately managed, they could be used as leverage for further privatisation”.

Civil society protests in Indonesia © KRUhA

The private sector’s dirty game

In the meantime, the private sector is playing dirty. “To divert public attention, they’ve renamed public-private partnerships as ‘Cooperation between Government and Business Entities’” (Kerjasama Pemerintah dan Badan Usaha, abbreviated as KPBU). A lot of work remains to be done. “We have to work harder with rural areas where these immense infrastructure projects are being built and where private companies have relocated their activities,” Reza explains.

The battle for water has never been simple. When I started out as an activist in Sumatra in 1995, calling yourself an activist put you at risk of being killed. So many disappeared. Today, the same problem exists in rural areas where there’s less control. In Jakarta, people can be co-opted and corrupted. But in rural areas, it is people’s lives that are on the line”.


Water Defenders is a Water Grabbing Observatory project celebrating the tenth anniversary of the recognition of the human right to water through a series of interviews that tell the stories of grassroots battles being fought for water all over the world. A multi-faceted struggle against resource exploitation and large as well as small projects that impact communities and natural environments. Ordinary yet extraordinary men and women across the world are defending this fundamental human right. Starting from World Water Day, 22 March, LifeGate regularly publishes features by the Water Grabbing Observatory, each centred on a person fighting to protect the most precious resource we have. And claim their right to water.

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