Saving a Sinking Jakarta

According to Fakhrurozi, 40% of Jakarta lies below sea level. He should know, too: he’s the head of Water Resources for Jakarta’s Public Works Department.

What does that mean? It means that, for the northern part of Jakarta, a city of about 10 million people with an average elevation of 8 meters (26 feet), houses and roads are flooded every month with the rising tide from the lunar cycle.

It means that, for many people who live in the northern part of Jakarta, the half that’s closer to the Java Sea (which is also surprisingly shallow, with an average depth of 80 meters), they have to deal with a constant reminder of the encroaching ocean every couple of weeks. The sea floods the floors of their homes by as much as 50 cm.

Of course, it’s a reminder of the other flooding problem: the seasonal rains that bring flooding to all of Jakarta, and Indonesia, twice a year.


Floods in Jakarta, Indonesia

Photo by Bungasirait

According to those who have to deal with the monthly flood, the tides aren’t weak but are as powerful as the ocean.  Hongjoo Hahm, the lead infrastructure analyst for the World Bank in Jakarta says, “This is nothing like river water – this is unstoppable.” For one kiosk owner who works (and lives) in Muara Baru, she’s seen the tides drag away shoes left outside homes, and has lost an entire refrigerator herself.  For a street vendor, losing a fridge can be fatal for your livelihood.  For another, a man named Edi Junaedi, a flood in 2007 washed his car away. “It was the worst one to ever come,” he said.

The flood lands are universally surrounding industrial areas of work, and the poorest slums in Jakarta. The people wish they could move away from it, but often, they moved to Jakarta in the first place to escape even more crippling poverty elsewhere. The sacrifice is necessary, for many.

The city of Jakarta, and the area surrounding it, has a growing problem to deal with. Industrial activities like excessive groundwater extraction and nearby deforestation contribute heavily to the problem: parts of Jakarta have sunk more than 1.5 meters since the early 2000s. For a city with an average elevation of 8 meters, even a 1 meter loss can be devastating for millions of people.

It also means that it isn’t just the sea that the people have to contend with, but the rain.


Floods in Jakarta, Indonesia

Photo: World Bank

Denial is a problem, too. Some officials believe that the flooding cannot be stopped; only mitigated. The former governor of Jakarta, Fauzi Bowo, said in 2009 “all we can do is minimize the effects and avoid destruction.”

Others in administrative positions blame trash building up in the sewers and rivers, illegal housing lining the shores and access points to reach the underwater flood channels, and global warming, in the most outrageous example. As Hongjoo Hahm points out, “it’s absolutely and categorically false [to blame global warming]. [It] has not even made sea levels increase anywhere in the world yet, so how can it have a localized effect? If that were the case, Singapore and Batam would be underwater by now.” This isn’t to say that global warming is false, because it isn’t, but that blaming it in this situation is futile when the causes are much more local in scope.

Ideally, a lot of the local rivers that are used to help alleviate flooding issues would be expanded to 20m wide, but are currently only 7m wide, due to housing conflicts and illegal kiosks set up along the shore. The administration places a lot of blame on trash clogging the waterways and illegal houses inhibiting normalization of the rivers to prevent flooding, not realizing that those infrastructural issues are inherently linked to the management of how Jakarta deals with the floods on a sociological and cultural level. A true solution to alleviate the flooding or even curb it entirely would be a systematic reform to how the city approaches the flooding. Building more dams or more flood reservoirs would help, until trash and other things clogged up the channels and stopped the effectiveness of it.

Adding more water pumps would help, until the publicly owned electric company shuts the electricity to pumps hooked up to the grid and makes the flooding worse. Not that the pumps would ever be enough, as long as landowners continue to issue land grants to replace wetlands, lakes, and ponds with concrete and business centers. With the surrounding areas in Jakarta made up of asphalt and businesses, the rainwater has nowhere to go except the lower, poorer, sections of the city, before flooding the over-taxed Ciliwung river. The Limnology Research Center at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences showed that of the over 200 lakes in Jakarta and the land around it in 1990, only 25% remain today.



Photo: World Bank

Still countless others don’t even view the flooding in the slums of northern Jakarta, like Maura Baru, as a government issue at all: they believe the area to be cursed. Like it was for Fauzi, they believe the issue to be unsolvable and just a sore spot that must be dealt with when it happens but otherwise ignored and forgotten. The richer parts of Jakarta can even opt to stay in hotels during especially bad floods, allowing them to entirely sidestep the issue in the first place.

The fatalistic and ‘pragmatic’ views would like everyone to believe that the issue can’t be solved. That the 15 billion rupiah ($1.5 million) allocated each year to maintain the 316 pumps and 34 floodgates (as of 2009) is already a burden too large. Add this all to a subversive and unrelenting view that the impoverished “get what they deserve.” When in reality, the impoverished and the rich both suffer when a “we’re trying” policy is good enough and the city they both live in sinks into the sea every year.

This is only focusing on Jakarta and the immediate surrounding areas. Zooming out and broadening our horizon to encompass more Indonesian provinces is even more horrifying. Estimates between April 2010 and 2013 indicate as few as 360,000 houses along with 1 million people were displaced by floods in Kalimantan, an island north of the Java sea. This same study, published by the United Nations Environment Program, explored the link between deforestation and flood frequency in these regions, showing that the increased deforestation (where land that hasn’t been deemed worth protecting is given away to industrial logging companies by the Indonesian government, despite the Agricultural Ministry decree from 1980 that sought to increase watershed protection).  Like Jakarta, Kalimantan local agencies focus on reaction and defense, instead of proactive mitigation of flooding in the first place.

Work has been started on a project to help alleviate the flooding issues in Jakarta, even if the rate at which it’s progressing is amazingly slow going. The Ciliwung River is being expanded, deepened, and reinforced to prevent the sides from collapsing during heavy rain. Current progress has doubled the depth to 2m from 1m, but the ideal depth would be 5-6m. Additionally, a 32km sea wall is being constructed, due to finish in 2017, to help with the tidal floods. The three phase project, which can be read about here, is planned to be finished in 2070. Nirwono Yoga, an urban planning expert at Trisakti University in West Jakarta, says the dredging and widening of water ways like Ciliwung river needs to be sped up.

Jakarta officials can’t continue to treat the flooding as a force of nature when it’s a force of man. That their hands are tied and they can only “try” to mitigate it, when if the problem was approached from all angles and perspectives it could be eradicated entirely. Piecemeal and reactive motions don’t help against future floods, and the work that is being done to help alleviate future flooding is being done slowly and without a sense of urgency that the poorer people of Jakarta deal with. At least, those that haven’t already succumbed to the fatalistic idea that it’s a fact of life, like the young woman living in Maura Baru, Tika: “Never in those 15 years has a month gone by without flooding…  it’s something we just have to deal with.”

It doesn’t have to be. And it shouldn’t be.

The expansion of waterways including the Ciliwung river and the installation of the 32km sea wall are part of the initiatives to stave it all off and maybe even, finally rid Jakarta of the flooding once and for all. The current president, Joko Widodo met with the Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in February to discuss their revived approach to dealing with the floods that plague so much of Indonesia. The president stated, “I know there have been efforts to mitigate as well as prevent [floods], such as reforestation… Let’s focus so that this problem that has been plaguing us for years is resolved…”

He went on with “Everyone needs to take anticipatory measures, before [flooding] actually occurs.”

A sigh of relief, surely, following the devastating floods in February that impacted 75,000 businesses and affected over 300 areas. Now with progress on the sea wall moving slowly but surely and the widening of the waterways in effect, it’ll take time to determine if Joko Widodo was as earnest in practice of effecting change as he makes himself sound. For once, officials are saying all the right things (from a public policy standpoint), now they simply need to start doing all the right things.

Meanwhile, people like Edi Junaedi and Tiki will watch the ocean creep into their houses, as they gather their things and put them in safe, dry spots, until the salty water washes back out into the ocean, as thunder warns of rain overhead.

Words by Edwin Henry

Photo by World Bank

You must be logged in to post a comment