Flood-weary Jakarta Ponders More Rains

Just a week after Jakarta underwent the worst flooding in years, more may be on the way. A University of Indonesia hydrologist, Firdaus Ali, said that starting tomorrow, a full moon resulting in rising tides on the beaches of north Jakarta could combine with rain make it almost certain that "parts of Jakarta will drown."

The current round of floods has once again brought home to investors just how difficult the situation is in Jakarta. A World Bank assessment of the situation by Jan T.L. Yap, the Lead Capacity Building Advisor for the bank's Jakarta office, said that "the city's efforts to attract investment and project an image of leadership nationally and internationally were severely damaged."

The bursting of a 30-meter section of a recently repaired canal dike, thus exposing one of the city's wealthiest neighborhood to massive and deadly flooding, generated the widespread feeling that the repair itself had been flawed - if not a result of outright corruption.

Whether anything will be proven - or even investigated - is not the ultimate point, of course. It is the appearance that the city - and indeed much of the country - cannot get its act together on basic infrastructure that undermines the bullish feeling Indonesia has generated among investors, businesspeople and government officials in the last few years.

Asked how he felt about the investment climate, the head of the country's Investment Coordinating Board, Chatib Basri, said time may be running out if changes are not forthcoming. Our success "is a combination of good policy and good luck," he told the American Chamber of Commerce-Indonesia Web site last week.. "We have to use this momentum because when the other parts of the world recover and Indonesia hasn't reformed itself, investors will rethink doing business in Indonesia."

The government run-Antara news agency quoted Industry Minister M.S. Hidayat as saying the floods might deter foreign investors if steps to mitigate their impact are not taken.

The floods also appear to be damaging the political prospects of the newly elected governor, Joko Widodo, known universally as Jokowi, a rising and popular political star who has only been in office fewer than 100 days, with political scientists and analysts demanding more action.

"We can't expect him to solve chronic issues immediately, but by now we would like to see plans laid out," Iberamsjah of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times of Singapore. "There has to be some clear direction and not reaction to things."

Former Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla agreed. "He shows enthusiasm but we need to see some concrete plans from him," he said.

No matter how energetic Jokowi is, however, solving Jakarta's flooding problems is going to take years. An estimated 40 percent of the city lies below sea level, protected by dykes. The northern part of the city lies only two meters above sea level. Thirteen rivers through the city to empty into the sea, most of them silted up and filled with masses of garbage. The Ciliwung has been called the most polluted river on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of people have squatted on the river banks, further constricting their flow. Settlements have been built on water catchment areas in West Java.

Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency has forecast torrential downpours from tomorrow through Tuesday, mainly in the northern and western parts of Jakarta and in the southern part of the city of Bogor.

The heavy rains that began on Jan. 15 combined with clogged waterways to inundate vast sections of the city including the presidential palace, producing a picture of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and two aides with his pants rolled above his knees. The bursting of the dike caused flooding through the center of town and paralyzing it. The yawning gap in the city's flood defenses burst its northern bank within minutes of water being released from a floodgate upstream, while the south side held firm.

Both sides had been reinforced recently, leading to obvious speculation on whether the specifications had been followed. Residents panicked at the sight of swimming monitor lizards, at first thought to be crocodiles. Twenty people drowned.

Using a 2002 flood damage assessment of US$1.1 billion in public and private damage as a yardstick, Yap's World Bank report indicated that economic losses "are probably much higher and include the fact that all businesses lost working time and revenue, children could not attend school, and diseases and a poorly functioning communication cut productivity."

Some 14,000 people remain in flood shelters and apparently are refusing to leave, expecting the waters to rise again tomorrow despite a vow by a spokesman for Yudhoyono that while flooding could occur, Jakarta won't drown. The city's education department is sending teachers out to the centers to take care of children's education, Jokowi immediately waded out to inspect locations across the city, announcing that the city would drill 100,000 infiltration wells in an effort to allow water to seep into the underground aquifer. The government also intends to build a 1.5km underground water canal connecting the Ciliwung River with the a flood canal in the eastern part of the city at the cost of US$73 million.

Work on a $189 million World Bank-funded project to dredge and rehabilitate floodways, canals and retention basins is expected to start in March, with dredging of 67 km of key channel systems and four retention basins , as well as repairing 42km of embankments, the report said.

Eng said about 57 residential areas in Jakarta - inhabited by 1.8 million people living near project sites - will experience less flooding after the project's completion.

Jakarta isn't alone in distress from floods. In February 2012 the World Bank issued a 638-page report titled Cities and Flooding: a Guide to Integrated Urban Flood Risk Management for the 21st Century by Abhas K. Jha, Robin Bloch and Jessica Lamond, describing the problem as a "global phenomenon which causes widespread devastation, economic damage and loss of human lives."

In the past 20 years in particular, the number of reported flood events has been increasing significantly, with 178 million people affected by floods in 2010. The total losses in exceptional years such as 1998 and 2010 exceeded $40 billion, the authors write.

The problem is that as Asia was settled - along with the rest of the world, of course - the settlers selected the mouths of rivers for the locations of their principal cities because of the ease of water transport. As climate has changed and as increased urbanization has packed these areas with people, disastrous floods are becoming a way of life.

"Urbanization, as the defining feature of the world's demographic growth, is implicated in and compounds flood risk," the authors write. "In 2008, for the first time in human history, half of the world's population lived in urban areas, with two-thirds of this in low-income and middle-income nations."