Tuesday, July 25, 2006
  What the blazes is going on?

The stroll I take in the morning to where I wait for a taxi takes me alongside the River Ciliwung. This rises in Bogor and wends its way down from the wet hills through the massive conurbation that is the flood plain called Jabotabek, or Greater Jakarta, until it joins the sea.

This morning the view is of rubbish strewn banks as little rain has fallen, up or downstream, for a month or three. The Ciliwung is some six metres lower than it will be in six months time in the heart of the rainy season. That is, of course, assuming there is a rainy season. Am I witnessing in miniature what is occurring in the Amazon basin?

The waters of the rivers of the Amazon Basin routinely fall by some 30 - 40 feet ~ greater than most of the tides of the world's seas ~ between the wet and dry seasons. But last year they just went on falling in the worst drought in recorded history.

In the Mamiraua Reserve they dropped 51 feet, 15 feet below the usual low level and other areas were more badly affected. At one point in the western Brazilian state of Acre, the world's biggest river shrank so far that it was possible to walk across it. Millions of fish died; thousands of communities, whose only transport was by water, were stranded. And the drying forest caught fire; at one point in September, satellite images spotted 73,000 separate blazes in the basin.

Hang on. Blazes? Hazes? As in Malaysia again this month?

Kuala Lumpur last year

You probably know that deforestation is the major cause of diminishing rainfall and global warming.

Alarming research suggests that the vast Amazon rainforest is on the brink of being turned into desert, with catastrophic consequences for the world's climate. And the process ... would be irreversible, starting as early as next year.

The Amazon Basin is being cleared to provide vast fields of (soya) beans destined to feed supermarket chickens in Europe. Also accelerated world demand for free-range beef and grains in light of mad cow disease and other outbreaks suggest that demand for Brazilian beef will increase, perpetuating high rates of Amazonian deforestation well into the future.

So far about a fifth of the Amazonian rainforest has been razed completely. Another 22 per cent has been harmed by logging, allowing the sun to penetrate to the forest floor drying it out. And if you add these two figures together, the total is growing perilously close to 50 per cent, which computer models predict as the "tipping point" that marks the death of the Amazon.

The models did not expect this to happen until 2050. But, says Dr Antonio Nobre, of Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research,"what was predicted for 2050, may have begun to happen in 2005."

Indonesia, as the other major tropical rainforest guardian, loses out to loggers and palm oil plantations, as I've blogged oft times before. I've also had my rants about privatised water companies and purveyors of bottled water.

It's worth ranting some more, I feel, especially as this most precious of resources is rapidly drying up. In Britain this past week, significantly hotter than here, there have been record sales of bottled water at a thousand times the cost of tap water.

Tap water costs c.£1 (US$1.8) per 1,000 litres and the average cost of a single litre of bottled water in the UK is 90p. And, note this, eleven per cent of all bottled water sold in the UK is "other purified water", otherwise known as "table water". This is effectively reprocessed tap water which, in the UK, is drinkable.

Barrie Clarke from Water UK, which represents the interests of publicly owned water companies, is not celebrating the increasing sales in bottled water. "Logically we do not need to spend all this money on bottled water," he said. "The market is bizarre. People, for reasons best known to themselves, think that it will somehow be better for them than tap water."

That view was echoed by 44-year-old Crispin Wood from London: "I prefer tap water over branded water", he said. "Bottled water is so expensive; the public is usually ripped off."

Go on, go figure.

I have always believed that a caring society, one that had the welfare of its citizens at the heart of all its policies, would protect its citizens. We elect politicians to carry out those policies which we feel would benefit us (and, per se, not 'them'.)

We, the people, need water. Why then sell a basic human need and, in terms of access to it, a human right, to 'the highest bidder'? And how come Jakarta's water is 'owned' by a nominally French and a nominally British company, neither of which seems to be capable of managing and distributing their liquid asset?

As a Londoner, I have to feel ashamed of Thames Water, the British company privatised in 1989. Back in Blighty, they face a fine of up to £140m for failing to provide a good service to its eight million customers in the south-east of England.

Water regulator Ofwat said (on Wednesday 18th July) it proposed to fine Thames Water, which it said had failed to achieve required customer service standards since July 2005. It said Thames Water had also failed to pay compensation to customers, as water suppliers are required to if they fall short of standards.

Thames Water have also agreed to spend £150m to try and solve leakage problems in its network. It therefore escaped a fine of 10% (c.£66m) of its turnover.

A similar situation exists here although, to be fair, Jakarta has grown too rapidly and haphazardly for there to have been a coherent and effective water distribution network, with much of the metropolis relying on private wells.

A 1994 survey showed that only 42.6% households in Jakarta have access to clean/piped water. So 53% of the city residents have to use groundwater for consumption. 70% use groundwater for washing and laundry since in certain areas in Jakarta, groundwater cannot be consumed.

Before 1993, water supply in Jakarta was controlled by "corruption laden" PAM Jaya. Thames Water Overseas Ltd. and Suez Lyonnaise, a French company, competed to run Jakarta's water system. In 1993, Thames made an alliance with Sigit Harjojudanto, son President Soeharto, while Suez approached Anthony Salim, a conglomerate and Soeharto's crony. In the end, Jakarta water management was divided into two equal portions for the two companies.

Upon request of Thames and Suez, in 1995, then President Soeharto gave orders to the Public Works Minister to privatise PAM Jaya. In 1997, PAM Jaya and the two corporations signed a concession contract for 25 years. Both Suez and Thames established local companies with their Indonesian partners, with Thames holding 80% stake of their company with Sigit, and Salim Group gave 40% stake to Suez. In the contract, all Jakarta water service system are in the hands of both companies, i.e., clean water supply, treatment plants, distribution system, recording and billing, and also PAM Jaya office buildings. In turn, both companies agree to pay PAM Jaya' s debt of US$ 231 million.

After the fall of Soeharto' s government and pressures by huge demonstrations in Jakarta against the deal, the Indonesia Government tried to annul the contract but later withdrawn after threats of lawsuits by Thames and Suez. The concession contract was then renegotiated and ends with Thames and Suez both holding 95% stake and built two new companies, PT Thames PAM Jaya (TPJ) and PT PAM Lyonnaise Jaya (Palyja).

In spite of several tariff increase since then, neither Thames nor Suez has actually met the agreements in the contract. Water leakage is still high, about 50%, while in the agreement they were suppose to minimize the leakage to only 35% within five years. Also, their promise to service 70% of the population after five years have not been met. Thames and Suez have blamed failure to reach projected connection targets on the Asian economic crisis and to local employees who refused to cooperate with their foreign employers.

Excuses, excuses and the water companies profit while the world faces increased desertification.

If it weren't so dry, I'd spit on them.


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