Jakarta’s Filthy Man-Made Morass

The torrential rain and subsequent flooding that has so far claimed at least 20 lives and forced an estimated 340,000 people from their homes in Jakarta this week is as much a manmade disaster as one pouring from the heavens.

Every year during the October to February rainy season, Jakarta is at risk of flooding. The last time it was this bad, in 2002, government pledged to do something. Now the water is back. An estimated 80 percent of North Jakarta remained under garbage-filled water Monday afternoon as boats ferried emergency supplies to stricken areas and forecasters predicted weeks of rain still to come. More than 50,000 people have sought emergency medical aid from disease borne by the filthy waters and the capital is paralyzed.

Jakarta governor Sutiyoso made it all sound like an act of God. "This is a natural phenomenon that happens once every five years, like in 2002, and may happen again five years from now. What is important is how we minimise the losses," he said, enraging residents who blame him for not doing enough to prevent the flooding.

While the government is justifiably blamed by suffering residents for inaction, Jakarta’s rainy season misery is likely to continue whatever is done in the near term.

A depressing cocktail of overwhelming population growth, rampant building, the destruction of mangrove forests and other natural areas and human-induced climate change that causes sea levels to rise all contribute to Jakarta’s woes. With its population approaching ten million, the city is growing faster than efforts to do anything about infrastructure, flooding or even basic housing.

A group of scientists from the Bandung Institute of Technology, the National Institute of Aeronautics, the Meteorological and Geophysics Agency and the State Ministry for the Environment predicted recently that major sections of Jakarta will be inundated unless the administration builds barriers along the coast – a solution their former Dutch colonial masters have been abandoning in the Netherlands as they let substantial tracts of reclaimed farmland return to the sea.

Part of the problem is that some 40 percent of the city’s land area is already below sea level as it sprawls across more than 660 square kilometers of alluvial lowland on the north coast of West Java. With 13 rivers running through it and more than two meters of annual rainfall there is rarely a year without floods. Much of the deluge is carried by the waters from West Java's wettest town, Bogor, where the Ciliwung and Cisadane rivers begin their journeys to the Java Sea, in the process winding its way through Jakarta.

This natural problem is compounded by a lack of concern for the environment on the part of successive administrations that has helped deliver disaster after man-made disaster. Regulations are ignored at will by the construction industry, real-estate sector and factory owners. The massive housing complexes surrounding Jakarta have replaced thousands of hectares of irrigated rice paddies, small lakes, and other natural habitat that once helped contain flood waters.

Some housing estates are even built on top of water catchment areas. Over the weekend Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar blamed excessive construction on water catchment areas for floods.

Rapid urbanization goes back to the days of the former dictator Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998. Some 2,753 hectares of agricultural land were made into housing estates and 47 hectares converted to industrial use in the span of four years alone, from 1988 to 1992. A 1995 Suharto decree formalized the so-called Jakarta Bay project, covering 2,700 hectares and encroaching upon valuable marshland. The mangrove forests in that area sheltered more than 60 plant and 2,000 animal species and acted as a natural breakwater between the sea and the land.

In the city proper, greenbelt areas have long been swallowed up by office blocks owned by the rich and powerful. While the city administration has tried to improve drainage and infrastructure, efforts have mostly been negated by an ingrained habit of destroying the environment for short-term gain.

Illegal squatters who live in 30-year-old “temporary” plywood houses occupy areas along the riverbanks. Efforts to evict them are ongoing and heavy handed but this time the floods have done the work. While five-star hotels are offering discounts to the wealthy in search of shelter, tens of thousands of the poor have lost everything in the last three days.

The January 2002 floods were the worst ever but little has really changed. The usual suspects are being blamed and promises made. Political figures once again want to be seen prominently handing over aid to flood victims.

Although the city has long planned to improve the 11-kilometer East Flood Canal and build a 23-kilometer West Flood Canal to alleviate the flooding, the government is unable to improve infrastructure fast enough to keep up with population pressures . While some work has been carried out, the exorbitant cost of land in the capital is also hindering progress. In any case apartment blocks and shopping malls already occupy much of the land needed for the canals.

The floods have brought the national "quick fix" syndrome right to the doorstep of the central government. The tragedy of Indonesia’s rampant destruction of rainforest may take place a long way from Jakarta, but the modus operandi is the same: go through the motions of taking action only when the river of complaints overflows, content in the knowledge that the urgency will dissipate as soon as more important issues surface.