Waterlogged Jakarta

Poor
infrastructure and lack of planning mean Indonesia’s capital
will likely be under water again this week

jakartaIt was the
ultimate traffic-jam solution. Tidal floods early this year had
blocked the road to Jakarta’s airport, turning an hour-long
journey into the day trip from hell. But one Australian businessman
was offered a ride in the helicopter of local tycoon James Riady and
found himself flying over the chaos below. His elation was
short-lived, however. Most of his fellow passengers failed to make it
to the airport and the Sydney-bound plane was grounded anyway.

Now, with
a warning that highlights the Indonesian government’s
disastrous lack of attention to planning and infrastructure
construction, the World Bank says the sea level in Jakarta could
rise up to 1.2 meters over the next few days. Although the rise is
laid to an astronomical cycle that occurs once every 18.6 years, the
city has been sinking for decades from over-exploitation of its
groundwater. The World Bank estimates the capital has sunk by up to
1.5 meters since 1994, leaving it vulnerable to rising tides and
heavy rain. Tropical downpours during the wet season and poor
drainage make flooding a regular event. Much of north Jakarta and
parts of the main road to the airport will likely be under water this
week.

Of course,
it won’t inconvenience just those rushing to make their flights
and precious few have access to the choppers of big companies. The
Red Cross expects about 30,000 people to be forced out of their
homes. Sandbags are being handed out and embankments reinforced but
anger in the community is building over the lack of planning.

“We
have no proper drainage system and little, if any, help when there is
flooding,” says Fitri, a young mother, who lives in a small
low-lying suburb in northeast Jakarta called Sungai Atap, which
translates as the river’s roof.

“It’s
not a very good name for this village,” she says, adding that
it is hit by severe flooding at least twice a year. Last time it
flooded, in February, the water rose by well over a meter and flowed
into Fitri’s house.

“It
was the first time I was really scared.”

Fitri’s
family has one of the only two-story houses in her street and many
neighbours stayed on her second floor, waiting for the water to
subside. Hundreds more were huddled in a sports hall down the road,
which only had two toilets.

Even more
galling for working class people like Fitri is the over-allocation of
land for villa developments in the hilly region of Bogor. As a result
there is not enough land left to soak up the rain and the runoff
rushes its way down to low-lying Jakarta.

The impact
is being felt by rich and poor alike, however. On Sunday, Jakarta
Governor Fauzi Bowo made his way to Pluit, the suburb of choice for
the city’s wealthy Chinese executives, to check on preparations
for this week’s floods in Pantai Mutiara, a beachside strip
which is lined with huge baroque-style mansions. Expensive boats are
moored in canals out the back. At the top of the street, just meters
from the shoreline, construction is underway for the 11 hectare
Regatta property development, which will include 10 apartment
buildings, a hotel, a wave pool and a marina.

Julius
Wijaya, a Regatta sales executive, said he doesn’t expect the
development to be affected by this week’s tidal floods. But
Rozo, a waiter at Café Jet Ski, down the road, said he was
scared. “I hope the prediction [from the World Bank] is wrong,”
The café has a terrace which hangs over the water. So far, it
is planning to stay open.

Despite
the governor’s visit, there were no signs of sandbags or other
preparations along Pantai Mutiara on Sunday, nor was there evidence
of preparations being carried out along the city’s main toll
road to the airport, other than the lingering presence of silent
cranes as part of a long-term project apparently designed to raise
the road. Some sandbags had been used to plug holes in cement walls
along the road but there are still obvious gaps. Many expect a repeat
of the chaos surrounding February’s floods, when
travelers were stuck in day-long traffic jams, flights were
delayed, and army trucks were brought in to ferry passengers stranded
at the airport back into the city.

Hong-Kong
based investment consultant Jim Walker, who was one of those stuck,
used the time to fire off an angry note to clients.

“Memo
to self: do not visit Jakarta in the rainy season again,”
Walker wrote. “Today's traffic problems are an apt metaphor for
Indonesia: Stuck in first gear with long periods of sitting around
waiting for the jam to clear. The country is stuck with lousy
leadership, weak institutions and below-potential growth.”

The World
Bank put it this way: “An ever-growing population,
densely-populated residential areas, rapid infrastructural
development, a diminishing number of green areas and catchments, plus
six months of near-constant rain” add up to a “recipe for
flood disasters which literally paralyze the city.”

The
Jakarta government, with the support of the World Bank, is belatedly
starting work on a US$150 million project to dredge the city’s
rivers, but it will cost billions to build the sea defenses the city
really needs to protect it from tidal floods.

The
federal government says it has made infrastructure a priority,
calling on private investors to inject the billions of dollars needed
to improve roads, ports, railways and power plants. In 2005 it
outlined grand plans for US$150 billion of investment over five
years, covering 91 projects. It has since narrowed its focus to 10
model projects, including power plants and a trans-Java toll-road but
progress has been slow.

Despite
the effort to make infrastructure a priority, sector investment
currently sits at about 3.4 per cent of GDP, or roughly US$12
billion. But that compares with about 9 per cent for Vietnam and 12
per cent for China.

Executives
and ministers at a regional business conference last week said
investment is starting to pick up. But in the meantime, Fitri stores
all of her valuables on the second floor and those without
helicopters will be stuck.

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