Jakarta Floods Again as Governor Dithers

Campaign promises go unfulfilled as Baswedan blames other officials

Political problems between Indonesia’s federal government and the local administration are delaying relief from Jakarta’s annual floods, which started on February 20, killing five people and forcing thousands to flee while the governor, Anies Baswedan, remains imprisoned by his campaign promises. Critics charge that Baswedan, who took office thanks in part to a campaign exploiting religious sentiment, didn’t take sufficient precautions before the floods came after promising relief.

As he did last year, Baswedan is using the excuse of extreme rainfall of more than 100 millimeters per day as the cause of flooding, saying Jakarta’s drainage system can only accommodate daily rainfall of 50-100 millimeters. “If it rains above 100 millimeters per day then there will definitely be inundation," he said, reluctant to mention flooding and replacing it with the word "puddle," which a growing number of critics jumped on as a play on words to give a more positive impression.

Although Baswedan claims that the flood receded within 24 hours, in reality, water has collected in ponds at several points. While he blamed excess flow from the headwaters of a river located in Bogor in West Java province, the Bogor mayor denied the claim. Baswedan also ordered the removal of the head of the Water Resources Service, blaming him for the problems.

The sprawling city, which covers more than 6,300 sq. km and is home to more than 31 million people, is built at the confluence of 13 rivers, many of which run into the Ciliwung, which flows through the center of the conurbation. It is located near sea level, with water ultimately discharging into the Java Sea. The situation is exacerbated by land subsidence as groundwater is continuously extracted for household, hotel industry and other business needs, and by sea level rise as climate change takes its toll.

The central government has missed its target to build two reservoirs, begun in 2016, to reduce water flow by up to 30 percent before it enters Jakarta. The two were to be completed in 2020 but the completion date has been changed to 2021.

Nirwono Yoga, an urban planning expert from Trisakti University, said Baswedan should have been able to make more effort to prevent flooding, especially "normalizing" the 13 rivers including the Ciliwung, the main culprit. The rivers are narrowing, either because city residents are building on their banks and filling them with trash, or they are experiencing natural silting. Their width must be restored by moving the residents' settlements and concreting the riverbank as well as dredging the silt.

"However, this program stopped in 2017 due to political choices,” Yoga said. “Governor Anies is reluctant to free up the location or land for normalization," said Yoga. The flooding that has inundated a number of settlements this year, he said, occurred in locations adjacent to rivers, emphasizing the urgency of river normalization. However, Baswedan stopped the project when the normalized area had reached 16 kilometers from a total of 33.69.

Normalization is a touchy subject in Jakarta. It had got underway gingerly under former Governor Fauzi Bowo between 2007 and 2012, to be followed by then-governor and now President Joko Widowo. Jokowi’s successor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the ethnic Chinese Christian who served for three years as governor prior to Baswedan’s election, set out with a vengeance to clean up the rivers by ousting squatters along the banks, relocating residents to government-controlled flats and tearing down hovels and other illegal buildings.

That earned Basuki, known universally by his nickname Ahok, a reputation as an inhumane leader and contributed to widespread anger at his reign although political observers rated his governorship highly for anti-corruption and efficiency. He lost his seat as governor to Anies Baswedan in April 2017 after a campaign in which trumped-up charges of blasphemy were filed against him, resulting in waves of outrage among the majority Muslim population, fanned by rallies by Muslim conservatives and religious figures. Basuki was jailed for two years after the election on the blasphemy charges but was later rehabilitated by Jokowi and named president commissioner of the state-owned oil and gas firm Pertamina.

In his campaign, Baswedan expressed optimism that he could solve the flood problem as Jakarta’s leader. He outlined four plans of action – reduce the upstream flooding to control the volume of water reaching Jakarta; build infiltration wells in Jakarta to drain away stormwater; install more water pumps; and control downstream sedimentation.

However, Yoga said, the three latter programs, even if completed, would do little to solve the root problem of flooding. Also, in terms of building absorption wells, Water Resources Service data show only 2,974 have been drilled against a target of one million during 2020-2022, or only 0.29 percent.

Baswedan introduced river "naturalization," which is basically the same as normalization, but without concreting, rather enlivening the ecosystem by planting trees on the riverbanks. However, Yoga said, Baswedan has been reluctant to remove residents from the riverbanks, possibly out of concern over the public outcry, which contributed to Ahok’s unpopularity, The program has never been implemented.

Although Baswedan said he would work with the regional governments of West Java and Bogor Regency in an effort to reduce the upstream discharge of water, in the fourth year of his governorship there has been no visible collaboration with the surrounding region in handling the floods. Baswedan has blamed satellite cities such as Depok and Bogor in West Java for causing the Jakarta flooding and they, in turn, have blamed Jakarta.

Relations between Baswedan and the central government are also acrimonious. Named education minister during Jokowi’s first term, Baswedan was sacked over disappointing performance but won the support of Jokowi’s presidential opponent Prabowo Subianto and Islamist groups to run against Ahok, Jokowi’s deputy as Jakarta governor. Animosity between the Jakarta government and the central government remains.

Yayat Supriatna, another urban planning expert, agreed with Yoga, another Urban Planning Observer Yayat Supriatna said the Jakarta government needs to be more serious about preparing itself for floods considering that extreme rainfall is predicted to continue in the future due to global warming, a phenomenon that was not discovered 10 years ago. Infrastructure that can accommodate extreme rainfall is needed, one of which is by normalizing rivers and increasing drainage capacity.

He said that if the flood management approach only relies on infiltration wells to pumps, these efforts are not sufficient to anticipate flooding, especially if the rainfall is more than 100 millimeters per day. "We have to think more realistically that the system we are running now is no longer suitable for the current rain conditions," said Yayat.

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