If water is life, then Tanah Merah was dying.
Except for a single tap belonging to a water seller, the water main completely bypassed this impoverished North Jakarta neighborhood. While water flowed on demand to nearby businesses and affluent districts, residents here bought every drop that their households needed at prices that left them little for anything else — including food for their families.
At least 56 percent of Tanah Merah’s 2,600 residents live on less than US $2 a day, With control of the one local water source, water sellers commanded a substantial amount of that meager income: on average, residents paid 6,000 Indonesian rupiah (US $0.60) per day for the 240 liters of water needed for cooking, cleaning, bathing and washing clothes.
That’s almost a third of their daily income, so families ate less. Their health and hygiene suffered. They were unable to pay the fees send their children to school. Caught in a dilemma between high prices and a need for clean water, Tanah Merah was withering under the heat of the harsh Jakarta sun.
But over the course of the last two years, Mercy Corps has helped turn on more taps throughout the neighborhood. Our Clean Water Project, part of a larger Urban Poverty Reduction program, has partnered with private companies and local authorities to make sure that poor families’ water needs are met efficiently, consistently and inexpensively.
Here’s how the water flows today.
Making the system work for everyone
It all begins with a water tower on the outskirts of Tanah Merah. Mercy Corps built the whole tank system late last year at a cost of US $46,400, and then trained a group of local technicians how to operate and maintain it.
One of those technicians is 42-year-old Endang, who’s lived in the neighborhood for almost 20 years. Endang — who also works as a tailor and security guard to support his wife and three children — maintains a rigorous schedule to ensure the system stays in working order.
In a typical day, he’ll test the water quality first thing in the morning for color and sediment to make sure it’s clean enough to go into the underground supply tanks. The water from those tanks is pumped up into the water tower. He then checks the water supply meters to see if there’s enough to provide sufficient pressure to get to resident’s houses from here through the system of pipes that Mercy Corps helped install.
Endang also helps monitor timing of the water supply. Since the system is relatively new, supply does not quite yet meet demand, so the water flows to different parts of the neighborhood according to a schedule agreed upon by residents.
He and his fellow technicians carefully log all of this in a book, posted at the water tower, that’s freely available for inspection by local authorities and neighborhood residents. Accountability, collaboration and trust are critical for this project to succeed.
“I wanted to have a role in this to help my community, as well as my family,” Endang said. “It’s coming from my heart. Things have always been hard here, so at least I want my neighborhood to have a clean and reliable water supply.”
A feisty and animated woman named Marwiyah also keeps the water flowing. As one of several sub-zone coordinators for the neighborhood, she is also responsible for making sure the water comes out clean, that the pressure is good and the supply sufficient. If any of these things are lacking, she is the liaison to the community-based organization that manages the water system.
“I am very vocal, that’s why they chose me,” she laughs.
Marwiyah, a 40-year-old mother of four, volunteers for this position. She used to work as a shop assistant for a store not far from here, but was laid off four months ago. Now she’s putting her skills to use in order to keep water customers happy with the service they’re receiving.
It typically costs 600,000 rupiah (US $60) for one household to get connected to the water system — again, a prohibitive amount for residents who make only US $2 a day. But Mercy Corps has made it possible for households to get a tap installed for only 200,000 rupiah (US $20) as long as they participate in the neighbors’ association and perform their own routine maintenance on the taps.
Today, Marwiyah’s monthly bill averages just 23,000 rupiah (about US $2.30) for 45,000 liters. That’s a far cry from the 180,000 rupiah (US $18) she paid each month to a private water seller for just 7,200 liters of water.
“I don’t need to get paid for this job,” Marwiyah says emphatically. “It’s an important job to keep my neighbors satisfied and the water flowing.”
Paying her bill on time — no matter what
Before the new water system was installed, Laliah felt was struggling even harder than most residents in Tanah Merah. A widow who makes only 200,000 rupiah (US $20) a month from renting a small room above her tiny house, she paid 1,000 rupiah (US $ 0.10) each day for only 40 liters of water.
Laliah worked as a janitor in a nearby textile factory for most of her life. She met her late husband there. But, when the factory went bankrupt a few years ago, she lost her job and resorted to small jobs around Tanah Merah, where she’s lived for the last three decades.
Besides the money she receives from rent, Laliah also makes ends meet by making rengginang — a type of local cracker made from leftover rice. She depends on her neighbors to donate rice, and sometimes makes as much as 40,000 rupiah (US $4) a month from this small business.
“I feel like this neighborhood is my own village,” Laliah says with a small smile. “My friends here are like my relatives. It is my home.”
Those friends helped Laliah out when she needed it most: they pooled enough money to pay the 200,000 rupiah it took to install a water tap for her. They’re also helping her maintain it.
Her monthly bill now averages only 11,000 rupiah (US $1.10) for about 3,000 liters of water. And she’s insistent on doing her part.
“I am very punctual with my payments,” Laliah contends. “If the bill collectors don’t come when they’re scheduled, I will go to the office to pay.”
And so Laliah visits Marwiyah and pays her bill to make sure there’s money to keep the system going. Marwiyah talks to Endang about water pressure, supply and quality. Endang inspects the pipes and tower that serve the neighborhood.
Mercy Corps helped install the infrastructure, but it’s the residents of Tanah Marah that keep the water flowing.