Community-Scale Water Sovereignty: Part II

Local Futures
Oct 29, 2018 · 8 min read

As part of a series examining best practices in water resilience at the home and community level, this post looks into what happens when water is no longer local — highlighting the challenges faced in Indonesia, and throughout the world, when water is privatized.

Goods and people on the move near the main port of Gili Air, a small island in Indonesia. Photo by @jendelarumahkita.

The UN has declared the 10-year period beginning in 2018 as “The International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development.” [1] Construction, production of goods, and local livelihoods all ultimately depend on the quantity of available water; it is a major determinant of settlement patterns, and sets limits to growth. When communities manage their water supplies locally, collective awareness of water quality and availability leads to careful, deliberate, and sustainable use— with enough water available for all. [2]

In the global growth economy, by contrast, it is assumed that development can go on endlessly, regardless of a community’s locally-available resources, including water. It is also assumed that centralization and privatization lead to greater ‘efficiency’ than when resources are controlled at the community level. But centralized water systems that empower multinational corporations can quickly tip the balance towards crisis, as revealed in the following examples from Indonesia, including the small island of Gili Meno. The question then is: What lessons can we learn from the experience of places like these, when it comes to managing water equitably and sustainably?

Traditional homes in the Gili Islands. Photo by @jendelarumahkita.

One of a trio of small islands off the northwest coast of Lombok in Indonesia, Gili Meno has about 500 residents, and no fresh water source. For this reason, it was nearly uninhabited until the 1970s, when the government awarded land to privately held coconut plantations and supplied prison inmates as labor. Other residents from Lombok soon followed and settled on the island. [3] For a few decades, rooftop rainwater collection was the only source of drinking water on the island.

Pak Udin moved to Gili Meno in the late 1980s, and now runs a shop and homestay on the island. He recalls that in his early days there, residents would fill up large containers from their household water tanks after each rainstorm. Stored in cool, dark rooms, the containers would keep water fresh and clean for up to a year, until the following rainy season. In his recollection, people rarely, if ever, got sick from the water.

A home-built rainwater collection tank in arid Karangasem, Bali — similar to those once widespread on Gili Meno. Photo by Carly Gayle.

But in the following decades, tourism on the Gili islands experienced rapid growth, sparking a spate of new construction. The new buildings usually did not incorporate rainwater harvesting systems, and most homes quickly came to rely on government-built wells — which provided water that was often too salty to drink — and on 21-liter Aqua-brand bottled water. [4]

Aqua, manufactured by the French company Danone, accounts for 60% of all bottled water sales in Indonesia. [5] At around US$1.50 per jug, it is affordable for the middle class and has caught on throughout the country — but a family with two minimum-wage earners purchasing three Aqua containers per week can find themselves spending nearly 10% of their income on drinking water.

Absent an alternative, almost all visitors to Gili Meno buy even smaller bottles of water, at an even greater economic and ecological cost. Gili Meno has no recycling program — and no effective waste management program of any kind. [6] The piles of bottles in makeshift landfills on the island continue to grow, as do Danone’s profits. Efforts at building desalination plants or bringing water over in pipes from mainland Lombok, a few miles away, have encountered many setbacks. It is especially risky to depend on such infrastructure given the recent earthquakes that have shaken the region, which left neighboring islands Gili Trawangan and Gili Air without water for days. [7]

The only residents for whom water is still free, says Pak Udin, are those few households that still maintain and use their rainwater collection systems.

An Aqua distributor unloading his cargo and collecting empty jugs at a small shop in rural Bali. Photo by Debra Kaiser.

On mainland Lombok, some communities have no municipal water supply or traditional system, and rely entirely on the private sector for water. In Sekaroh in southwest Lombok, all water arrives on trucks, with residents paying as much as US$34 for 5,000 liters of non-potable water — on top of purchasing drinking water. Those who lack sufficient storage space and must therefore buy partial truckloads of water end up paying even more per liter: as in so many market-based systems, water in Lombok is more expensive for the poor. [8]

In neighboring Bali, the government supplies water to much of the island via pipes from natural water sources in the central mountains. But in the dry season — the months of July and August — municipal water supplies sometimes shut off without warning for weeks at a time. In 2013, water ran out for two months in the arid region of the Bukit; supply-demand economics took over and truckloads of water soon cost more than US$100 each. Water-insecure Bukit residents are in good company: 2.7 billion people — more than 1/3 of the world’s population — lack reliable access to clean water for at least one month of the year. [9]

When water is scarce in Bali, less affluent people and businesses are forced to go without. Commercial establishments including hotels, which consume many times more water per capita than Balinese households, are billed at a lower rate, and are given prolonged access to water during times of drought. [10] What’s more, groundwater is severely depleted in much of Bali due to heavy use from the tourism industry, dropping up to 50 meters (164 feet) in the past ten years. [11] Deep wells are often infeasible for local families due to high cost, site conditions, or concerns about further depleting water from neighbors’ shallow wells.

As on Gili Meno, Aqua-brand bottles are the most common source of drinking water in Bali. Locals, noting that bottles sit in uncovered trucks for hours in the blazing equatorial sun on long journeys throughout the island, have expressed concerns that plastic may leach into the water. They have also noted that the Indonesian rupiah is a volatile currency, and that dependency on global private water suppliers and fossil fuels subjects their drinking water — their most vital resource — to the speculative whims of the global economy.

A large Aqua distribution truck sits in traffic in the city of Denpasar, Bali, among middle school students riding home on motorbikes. Photo by Frank Gayle.

So what makes household and drinking water sources truly sustainable? From these examples, it seems clear that sustainable systems are:

Safe from natural disasters. When centralized systems with no backup storage are damaged, everyone is left without water. Because earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters often affect homes in a community unevenly, having a large number of smaller systems in place increases the likelihood that at least some will still function after natural disasters, and can provide water to those who need it most in those critical times.

Insulated from the global economy. Water prices that depend on currency fluctuations and the bottom lines of multi-national companies can devastate families living at the margins. In sustainable systems, safe water from local sources is available to every household, regardless of ability to pay.

Equally accessible to everyone. Much of the UN rhetoric surrounding the “water for sustainable development” decade is focused on conflict resolution and on preventing the violence that inevitably results from unequal access to water. Large-scale market-based systems and handouts for water-heavy industries reward those with a higher ability to pay, creating and exacerbating class tensions. While some community-managed water systems can lead to biases against minority populations [12], conflict at the community level is often easier to address than structural inequalities built into centralized systems.

Localized. Ultimately, the above characteristics are most likely to be found when water systems are localized, using technologies that can be managed and maintained locally, and with policies that are decided upon by communities themselves. Localization also encourages systems that are well-matched to the ability of the local environment to provide for its human inhabitants, with support from governments or non-governmental bodies as needed.

In large-scale centralized systems, several factors lead to a loss of local control. Resource-intensive technologies are needed to access water from deep within the earth and transport it long distances, and non-local industry can become a region’s biggest water consumer. As a result, communities lose control over their most precious resource. Large-scale systems also make it difficult or impossible to know whether local ecosystems can support their human populations. In rapidly growing urban areas — especially in semi-arid regions — development is already so divorced from local water resources [13] that drastic strategies are needed — including a sharp reduction in water use for the highest consumers, and a shift back to a way of life that can support human populations. But for rural areas, the path to sustainable water management is relatively simple: reclaim control of water from the global economy, and protect it from unwelcome heavy industry and multinational corporations.

Many organizations throughout the world are working on decentralized technology and product-service systems to empower local water management. Part 3 of this series will profile a few of these outstanding organizations in Indonesia and beyond.


[1] “New Decade for Water”, UN-Water, March 3, 2017.

[2] Norberg-Hodge, Helena, Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World (Sierra Club Books, 2009). Chp. 1.

[3] Dickerson, Hollin, “Trouble in Paradise”, Inside Indonesia, June 1, 2008.

[4] Conversation with Pak Udin, Gili Meno, Indonesia, Sept 11, 2016.

[5] Warburton, Eve, “Bottled Water — Big Business in Indonesia”, State of the Planet, Columbia University Earth Institute, Sept 12, 2011.

[6] Pak Udin, op. cit.

[7] Lamb, Kate, “Lombok earthquake leaves idyllic Gili islands facing uncertain future”, The Guardian, Aug 11, 2018.

[8] Conversations with Sekaroh farmers, Tabanan, Indonesia, Sept 22, 2016.

[9] “Threats: Water Scarcity”, World Wildlife Fund, 2018.

[10] Standard practice for PDAM (government-supplied water) in Bali, according to a conversation with Ibu Dayu Mas, Gianyar, Indonesia, July 2014.

[11] “Bali Water Protection Program: Working for freshwater resilience in Bali”, IDEP Foundation, 2015.

[12] Klema, Mackenzie, “For Bringing Safe, Clean Water to Slums in Sub-Saharan Africa, Market-Based Strategies Are Not the Answer”, Huffington Post, May 5, 2014.

[13] Purvis, Katherine, “Where are the world’s most water-stressed cities?” The Guardian, July 29, 2016.

For additional information on the effects of privatized water replacing public services in the developed world, check out this data from Food and Water Watch. And for insights into how privatization of water is slowing access in cities in the developing world, read this article from The Guardian.

Article written by Carly Gayle.

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Planet Local

Planet Local is Local Futures’ online series showcasing some of the thousands of grassroots localization projects springing up all around the world. We hope you enjoy this glimpse ofsome of the amazing groups fighting for the future of people and the planet!

Local Futures

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Local Futures works to renew ecological, social and spiritual well-being by promoting a systemic shift towards economic localization.

Planet Local

Planet Local is Local Futures’ online series showcasing some of the thousands of grassroots localization projects springing up all around the world. We hope you enjoy this glimpse ofsome of the amazing groups fighting for the future of people and the planet!

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