Waterlogged Jakarta

It 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.