Wells unwell so plastic pure? A wet debate
UN World Water Day (Friday 22 March) promotes our absolute dependence on the liquid. Duncan Graham reports from Flores, an island better known for droughts.
If you can’t see a water cooler from where you’re reading this, you’re probably not in Indonesia.
The upturned plastic kegs curiously called gallon - though they hold 19 liters which is a drop or two over five gallons – are a fixture in offices and most middle class homes.
Indonesian tap water isn’t safe to drink, so households buy bottles, or use suspect sources and then spend big on gas to boil out the bacteria which causes the runs,
But one island claims to be mining an aquifer that doesn’t need treatment and plans to turn exporter, challenging the dominant players.
Ruteng is a cool and tiny town 1,200 meters up the creased and crumpled Manggarai Highlands of West Flores. The area is internationally known for the Liang Bua cave where remains of the extinct ‘hobbits’ (Homo floresiensis) were discovered by Australian and Indonesian archaeologists in 2003.
Flores is east of the ‘Wallace Line’ between Bali and Lombok, separating lush Asia from the arid Australian eco-zone. Economies are small; the Lesser Sunda islands rely on Java for essentials and tourists for cash.
Ferries and planes from the west come with motorbikes and fuel, household goods and packaged foods, then depart largely empty apart from coffee and returning visitors. They’re drawn by dive sites and Komodo Dragons, the world’s largest lizards only found in the national park on Flores’ west end.
How to use that spare cargo space has long puzzled Ruteng businessman Agustinus Willy Djomi. (right) The answer is to export water to Surabaya under the trademark Komodo.
“People think Flores is dry, which is true when compared to Java,” he said. “But we have huge underground lakes of pure water,” he said.
“We’ve been pumping and bottling for 20 years. Now we know there’s enough to export. It comes up around ten to 15 degrees Celsius and has no impurities. It’s filtered using German equipment but nothing is added.”
His company, PT Nampar Nos has been extracting 30,000 liters a day and selling throughout Flores under the Ruteng trademark. Its bottles are pressed in the factory using blanks imported from Jakarta. There are about 100 workers, making the company the island’s biggest industrial employer.
However it’s not all pump and profit. Expansion plans haven’t gone down well with some locals saying lifting production will drain reserves and create droughts.
Djomi refutes the charges, pointing to many private shallow wells around the town, and the vagaries of weather for irregular shortages.
Many cultures associate water with life and reject exploitation. Concerns about commercial operators sucking up and selling on is almost universal, even in high rainfall, wide-waterway countries like New Zealand. Assertions about the health benefits and essential mineral content are also contentious.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has forced suppliers to scrub ‘organic’ from marketing material. A NZ company was fined NZ $25,000 (Rp 250 million) for advertising its product as better than plain, boring tap water.
Yet business keeps lifting, like sea levels due to global warming, even where tap water is safe. This defies the Economics 101 principle that free goods can’t be sold.
They can if hinting health and packaged with images of snowy peaks soaring above polluted plains, and bottles shaped like a woman’s body.
Retail prices go from Rp 1,000 for 600 milliliters to more then Rp 10,000 at kiosks in airports.
Indonesian sales, currently worth US $11,400 million according to trade figures, are expected to rise by ten per cent this year. If the Ruteng product can get a cool place on Java’s supermarket shelves, Flores will move from importer to exporter.
That will be a tough task even with a gimmicky name. Komodo Dragons are stinking beasts so linking them to clean water could be risky. But maybe oxymorons attract.
The Indonesian market is dominated by the French food conglomerate Danone, which hardly needs advertising; its product Aqua has become a synonym for bottled water, whatever the brand.
Adam’s Ale, or Bali Belly?
It’s long been the cautious Western travelers’ basic question: Is the water safe to drink?
If ‘Yes’ as in Australia, Singapore, much of Europe and the US then this implies the nation is modern and well run. If ‘No’, as in most Asian countries, then the label suggests an undeveloped state.
But before you sneer because your homeland reticulates potable water purified at great cost, ponder why most isn’t used for drinking but showering, watering plants and washing the car.
Water quality varies across Indonesia. Old timers tell of distant days when rivers were clean and swimming a joy, not a jeopardy. Not now. Some households tie muslin around faucets to catch the grit, and they’re the lucky ones.
Despite extension of pipelines by the regional water companies PDAM (Perusahaan Daerah Air Minum, more than 30 per cent is lost through leaks, according to Indonesian research.
Twelve per cent of the population still lacks access to water in their homes, meaning it has to be carried from a village well or standpipe.
The job of lugging jerry cans of water up hills is usually done by women. Released from this toil would improve their health.
A UNICEF report claims 150,000 Indonesian children die every year through preventable diarrhea. A 2015 survey in Yogyakarta showed two thirds of water samples were contaminated with fecal bacteria.
So even if you want to save the world by rejecting plastic bottles, in Indonesia saving your family’s well being might be the more immediate priority.
##First published in The Jakarta Post 22 March 2019