Jakarta. As one of the countries with the longest coastlines in the world, Indonesia is generally expected to be self-sufficient in domestic salt production.
However, according to data provided by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the archipelago can currently – under ideal conditions – only produce a maximum of 2.6 million tons of salt per year, while it requires 4.23 million tons, most of it for industrial use.
Indonesia is not self-sufficient in salt production due to a heavy reliance on the weather, which can drastically affect output. Salt production declined 96 percent year-on-year to 188,000 tons in 2016 due to high rainfall caused by the La Niña weather phenomenon.
To compensate for the shortfall, Indonesia must import salt from various countries, including Australia, India, China and Germany. In 2016, it imported 2.1 million tons worth $86 billion, compared with 1.9 million tons a year earlier.
Extraction From Seawater
In his book "Hikayat Si Induk Bumbu: Jalan Panjang Swasembada Garam" ("Tale of the Main Seasoning: Long Road to Self Sufficiency in Salt"), Misri Gozan, a chemist at the University of Indonesia, says very few beaches on Indonesia's 99,093-kilometer coastline are suitable for salt production.
Many requirements must be met to turn a coastal area into a successful salt production facility, including weather, rainfall, humidity, wind speed and ocean waves.
"Salt farmers in Indonesia still use a very simple production method that almost completely relies on sunlight, so unsupportive environmental conditions will prevent salt production from being optimal," Misri said.
He cited as an example, the Sumatra coast, which is mostly unsuited for salt production due to high waves, which damage evaporation ponds.
Beside this, many beaches are also considered unsuitable for salt production because tourism offers greater economic value.
One hectare can produce between 50 and 100 tons of salt per year, which generally sells for around Rp 1,100 (8 US cents) per kilogram. Thus, under ideal conditions, the yield per hectare ranges between Rp 5.5 million and Rp 11 million after a five-month drying process.
"Therefore, there is a tendency for beaches to be used as tourist attractions instead, as this offers greater economic value than salt production," Misri said.
A country with a long coastline is not necessarily a major salt producer. Canada for example, which has the world's longest coastline, only ranked eighth globally in salt production at 10 million tons in 2016, according to data provided by the Indonesian Salt-Using Industries Association (AIPGI).
The world's largest salt producers generally rely on salt mines to access deposits laid down over millions of years. Salt from these mines is often more concentrated, with higher levels of sodium chloride than in sea salt, and therefore preferred by manufacturers. It is also a lot cheaper to dig salt out of the ground than to wait for seawater to evaporate from ponds.
China was the world's largest salt producer at 58 million tons in 2016, while it only has the 12th-longest coastline. But it was also the third-largest salt importer, at $189.2 million, or 5.9 percent of the world total.
While China was the largest salt producer, the Netherlands was the world's largest salt exporter, at $232 million, or 10.3 percent of global total, in 2016.
Faisal Basri, an economist and member of the Business Competition Supervisory Commission (KPPU), said China is both the world's largest producer and importer of salt because of industrial demand within the country.
"Salt importers are industrial countries because salt is needed for production," Faisal said, adding that it is a myth that countries with long coastlines do not need to import salt.
Totok Siswantara, a technology and industry transformation expert, said Indonesia, as the world's 32nd-largest salt producer, is still unable to meet the salt requirements of its domestic industries, which need a sodium chloride level of 97 percent. Salt produced from natural evaporation only has a sodium chloride level of between 86 percent and 92 percent.
He said the government should therefore start to modernize the country's salt industry by implementing technological innovations to eliminate dependence on unpredictable weather conditions.
"The salt demand in industry continues to increase, but it has not benefited farmers. … All parties must cooperate to boost salt production in Indonesia, commensurate with its long coastline," he said in a note.
Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan said during the Food Security Summit in Jakarta last week that Indonesia aims to become self-sufficient in salt by 2021. One of the efforts aimed at achieving this goal is expanding the area used for salt production in East Nusa Tenggara to 30,000 hectares.
"Up to 20,000 hectares will be used to produce salt for industry. This is an ongoing development and will continue to be increased gradually," Luhut said.
The Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry is also preparing technology that allows salt processing to be completed within seven days, instead of the usual 70.
Salt imports are already regulated under a 2006 law aimed at the protection and empowerment of fishermen and salt farmers, with importers requiring a recommendation letter from the ministry.
Despite this, the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry and the Ministry of Industry were unable to agree on the salt imports to be allowed for this year, with the former recommending 2.1 million tons, while the latter said 3.7 million tons.