Every rainy season, parts of Jakarta are now suffering from floods as monsoon rains fill city streets.
This year’s floods have cost at least a dozen lives, and displaced more than 130,000 people in the greater Jakarta area.
Aside from the tragic human costs, there are also huge economic costs. The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Indistry (Kadin) reported that last year’s floods cost the businesses up to $3 billion in losses.
In some respects, flooding in Jakarta can be seen as a form of natural disaster. After all, no one can control how much rain falls in the city, or when.
Thirteen rivers cut through the capital to the sea, joining up with remnants of Dutch-era canal systems along the way. As rain swells the rivers in the wet season, the waterways tend to spill over their banks.
Add to this rising sea levels from global climate change and the fact that 40 percent of Jakarta is below sea level, and it is inevitable that parts of the city will be swamped in heavy rains.
Many of the factors that lead to flooding in Jakarta are the result of unsustainable human practices happening today, whether carried out by the government, developers, businesses, communities or individuals.
Mitigating the impact of flooding in the capital will require coordination from all these stakeholder groups — the sustainability of the city itself — is at stake.
The Jakarta government was again spurred into action after last year’s floods, which put the city under a state of emergency for more than a week.
Much of the city’s response has focused on restoration of the Ciliwung River and West Flood Canal after a section of the canal collapsed in Central Jakarta and flooding the city’s major landmarks.
As in the wake of the major floods in 2007, the city government aimed to increase the capacity of the waterways to accommodate run-off from deforested areas upstream.
The dredging of key channel systems and retention basins — and the repair of collapsed embankments — is supported by a $189-million project by the World Bank started in 2012.
But the Bank’s progress report of the Jakarta Urgent Flood Mitigation Project in July last year shows that from January to June 2013, the project was delayed by the local government’s request to reconsider its “timeframe, implementation framework and conditions.”
The report further states that no results were expected in the first two years of the six-year project, meaning that Jakartans will have to wait even longer to see its impact.
In any case, Marco Kusumawijaya, founder of the RUJAK Center for Urban Studies, said that large-scale projects like these only address the symptoms of flooding, and not the cause. He said increasing the capacity of drains only allows more water into the capital, and does not address the source of the problem, which is surface run-off from deforested areas upstream.
“For more than 100 years the same approach has been pursued and failed in Jakarta … Every time new infrastructure is completed, bigger floods occur the following year,” he wrote on his blog, mkusumawijaya.wordpress.com, after last year’s floods.
Marco suggested a conservationist approach as a better solution, with all parties working together to reduce surface run-off via reforestation.
“The government needs to ensure that all are doing their respective share and regulate it justly but firmly,” he told the Jakarta Globe.
With a population of more than 28 million people, the capital is a booming business spot.
The city’s open spaces are quickly filling up with shopping centers, housing complexes, and apartment blocks, as well as informal shops and shelters.
All of this development puts a strain on Jakarta’s inadequate water infrastructure and its green open spaces.
A frightening fact that most Jakartans are aware of is that the city is gradually sinking, at an estimated rate of 10-20 centimeters per year.
This phenomenon is known as subsidence, and it is largely caused by the excessive extraction of groundwater by homes and businesses.
Because the water quality and supply from the city mains is unreliable, many businesses such as malls and offices secure their own water source by pumping groundwater.
“The fact is the rich have more power to do so: they can afford the pumps. Not just individuals, but also businesses and industries,” Marco said.
The depletion of groundwater reserves and the weight of concrete developments on the land is pushing the city well below sea level, making it more susceptible to flooding.
Furthermore, large-scale developments eat into the amount of green open space in the city, reducing the area of land able to soak up excess rainwater.
A moratorium on building new malls has put a cap on the 173 shopping centers already filling the urban landscape. But this policy is only a temporary fix for a style of development that needs to be made more sustainable in terms of its use of water, energy and land that previously absorbed rainwater.
Businesses and industry need to take responsibility for their impact on subsidence and the reduced area of green space in the city if they want to thrive here in the long term.
The people of Jakarta also have to bear some responsibility for protecting their city from floods.
Some of the city’s poorest residents live along its major waterways, using the water for washing, bathing, sewage and garbage disposal, and even for drinking. These are also the residents most at risk to the dangers of flooding.
Jakarta residents are quick to blame these communities for causing flooding in the city, by clogging up important dams and drainage systems with trash. However, these communities have the least amount of power to make a change.
For a more sustainable Jakarta, every resident needs to take responsibility for their impact on flooding —individuals, communities, or leaders in business and government. In the long run, flood mitigation efforts of all kinds can save money and save lives.