Cleaning Up Jakarta's Rancid River

Jakarta's notorious Ciliwung River, one of the most polluted in the world, is expected to receive a long-awaited revitalization in the coming months thanks partly to a strategic partnership with South Korea.

After four years of negotiation, Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya signed an agreement with his South Korean counterpart Yoo Young Sook in December that detailed US$9 million of Korean investment to fund the restoration, matched by approximately Rp10 billion (US$1.04 million) investment from the Jakarta government, which could grow.

The US$10 million from the two is a part of a major attempt to clean up Jakarta's waterways, with the World Bank the main financiers of the Urgent Flood Mitigation Project. The Bank has put up US$139.64 million of the US$190 million project. The Ciliwung project earmarked by the agreement between Jakarta and Seoul is separate, although they will coincide in the coming years.

The cleanup of the Ciliwung, which has suffered from decades of pollution and ineffective waste management is an enormous problem that will take far more than the US$10 million put up by the two entities. It will be dwarfed by the resettlement of the hundreds of thousands of poor who have encroached in riverbank settlements, most of which are considered illegal.

The scale of the cleanup is magnified by the fact that Jakarta, a sprawling city of more than 11 million people, has routinely been described as ungovernable. The official metropolitan area is known as Jabodetabek, a name formed by combining the initial syllables of five districts, Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi, each subdivided into scores of sub-districts with competing jurisdictions. In a city and country notorious for corruption, preventing major chunks from being siphoned off by corrupt officials will present a major problem as well.

There is no meaningful sewage system in the city and building one presents an almost unimaginably big problem. By comparison, the tidy island republic of Singapore, which set out to clean up the relatively short and manageable Singapore River, took more than a decade to achieve its aim.

Jakarta's new Governor Joko Widodo, known universally as Jokowi, however, has kicked off a flurry of hopeful excitement through traffic improvement projects and other achievements after years of frustration and inactivity on the part of the previous mayor, Fauzi Bowo.

Jokowi has said that Jakarta has a lot to learn from Seoul when it comes to managing waterways and critical infrastructure.

"South Korea has good, clean rivers that have become tourist attractions. We want to emulate that here in Jakarta," he told reporters after a meeting with the South Korean Ambassador Kim Young-Sun.

The project, set to commence in March, is designed to see the banks of the river restored to 50 meters wide through dredging. The Ciliwung will be the first of 13 waterways in Jakarta to be revitalized and will serve as a pilot program for future partnerships.

Both Indonesian and South Korean officials have signaled their intentions for closer cooperation in coming years, drawing upon Seoul's experience with transportation infrastructure. The South Korean ambassador, Kim Young-Son, was quick to point out the importance of ongoing discussion after a recent meeting with Jokowi.

"The governor and I discussed a number of agendas for possible cooperation. The administrations of both cities will have more intensive talks over the matter soon," he said.

But while the revitalization project strengthens economic ties between Seoul and Jakarta and plans to deliver long overdue interventions, the initiative will also have a transformative influence on Jakarta's poorer communities and slums.

The Ciliwung is home to hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken people who live on its banks, in most cases illegally. Jakarta is inhabited by 10 million people, half of whom live on less than US$2 per day. Many of these poorer communities have settled along the Ciliwung and the canal networks of the city. The revitalization will necessitate the relocation of these people, their homes, and consequentially the uprooting of informal economies.

It is now reported that only 2 percent of the river's original banks remain as Jakarta's underclass have relocated to settlements along a 30-40km stretch of the river as the metropolis deals with high population growth and inequality.

Both the central government and the Jakarta administration have announced that they will construct temporary accommodation for the duration of the project, which is estimated to take 30 months.

In early 2012, the Director for Poverty Eradication in Urban Areas at the Ministry of People's Housing was quick to point out that relocated inhabitants would be moved to government subsidized apartments. "Starting this year until 2014, the Ministry of People's Housing will relocate the inhabitants of the slums in Ciliwung riverside", said Director Wawan Mulyawan.

But the process may not so clear-cut. The restoration will coincide with the World Bank-financed Urgent Flood Mitigation Project, which is designed to dredge 11 floodways and four retention basins over the coming five years, and will necessitate the relocation of thousands who call waterways other than the Ciliwung home.

The revitalization program also endeavors to solve Jakarta's lack of available drinking water, which has become not only a health hazard for the city but also an economic barrier. Jakarta draws its drinking water from rivers in West Java and Tangerang, as none of the metropolis's waterways are deemed safe for drinking.

With the Ciliwung awash with raw sewerage, industrial waste, sediment and household rubbish, the river has become a cesspool of e.coli bacteria. The World Health Organization now reports that 20,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhea in Indonesia each year, with the World Bank estimating that a further 30,000 people die of hygiene and sanitation related diseases.

In addition to a domestic wastewater facility and learning center, Jokowi has highlighted the role that public awareness and education programs must play in the revitalization process. "Campaigns to build a culture of disposing trash in the appropriate places [instead of in the rivers] are needed," he said last Friday.

As dredging begins in the coming months it is hoped that the revitalization process can restore the sanitation and flow of the Ciliwung. But for now, it is certain that if the project is successful the social fabric of Jakarta's poorer communities will be changed dramatically as the city's growing pains continue.

(Henry Belot is a freelance journalist from Melbourne)