Jakarta floods 2009

While December was quite sunny and pleasant, the New Year has brought angry torrential downpours, massive cracks of frequent lightening, and of course, annual flooding.

As some of you may know, I live in the north of Jakarta; within 3km of the ocean. Our area is at or below sea level, and therefore one of the first in Jakarta to flood if heavy rains occur. It’s one thing to hear or read of global warming, deforestation, and rising sea levels, but it’s quite different to experience it annually on a first-hand basis.

The open canal system in Jakarta quickly gets clogged with trash and sediment, and one large downpour can bring the water to the brim. Two days of consecutive rain is all it takes for the sludge to flow into the streets. Keep in mind, the open canals are full of not only water, but a toxic muck composed of sewage, chemicals, rats, snakes, and God-knows what else. Even when diluted with rainwater, when they overflow into the streets you have to keep your mind off of what you’re walking through.

Historically, it’s been said that the rainy season brings flooding to Jakarta once every five years on average. This fact is changing. Why?

Quoting an article in The Jakarta Post:

“Jakarta is located in the downstream area of the Ciliwung River basin, and is affected by the characteristics and conditions of the upstream area. Furthermore, Jakarta is an urban area with complex socio-economical problems indirectly contributing to triggering a flood event.

Jakarta’s population density has increased rapidly due to a growing urbanization rate, increasing the risk of floods.

Urbanization has many definitions. One of the more simplified definitions says urbanization is a process of artificial land use alteration occurring through time. Artificial land use alteration, due to population density increase in urban areas, converts pervious natural surfaces to impervious artificial surfaces, such as human settlements, transportation infrastructure and shopping centers.

The decreasing infiltration capacity and natural water storage capacity of the soil, due to the conversion of natural surfaces to artificial surfaces, increases the storm-water runoff rate and the total runoff volume, shortens the runoff travel time, reduces groundwater recharge and base flow, and increases peak runoff rate, leading to flood control problems.

Urbanization also increases wastewater and waterborne wastes, raises water demand, deteriorates water quality, and leads to pollution control problems.

Flooding in Jakarta is not only affected by changes in land uses, but is also caused by some factors such as long-lasting moderate rainfalls saturating the soil, inadequate land use, channelization of natural waterways, surcharge due to blockage of drains and street inlets, inflow from the river during high stages into urban drainage system, conversion of floodplain to human settlement, and domestic solid waste thrown away in the river.”

And further thoughts from Indonesia’s Urban Studies:

“The annual floods in Jakarta are strong evidence that Jakarta has not been able to sustainably accommodate its growth. Two centuries ago, the Dutch colonial government, with its long experience of controlling water and drainage systems, built the canal system to protect the city’s population which was then 500,000. Jakarta, which lies in the lowland with 43 lakes and 13 rivers, relies on the canal system to prevent flooding. Today Jakarta is a megacity with nearly ten million population within the city’s boundary and more than four million population in its neighboring areas, but still relies on the same system to avert flooding.”

2007 was the year of Jakarta’s worst floods in decades (some say longer). I conveyed my experiences in a string of posts, images, and videos, under the category of ‘flood’. I ventured out into the flood waters, wading in the muck which was waist high in the most passable areas. While in some ways it was quite an interesting experience, it’s terribly unfortunate that some people lost so much, including their lives.

Shortly after the cleanup process was completed in the Spring of 2007, many of the homes in Kelapa Gading and surrounding areas were put up for sale. Apparently the residents had enough. And yet, two years later, there are many new developments, and even more green areas built over – their water absorbing properties now suffocating in concrete. We are fortunate to live right across the street from a large park – one of the last remaning in the surrounding area. There have already been plans drawn up to build some structures on it as well.

Common sense begs the question, “Why would you remain in an area that knowingly floods?”. Oddly enough, Kelapa Gading has some of the largest homes in Jakarta; the immense mansions are only slightly higher than the streets which often resemble Venice. And more and more malls and shopping centers are added each year, further contributing to the destruction of any green areas.

As I write this post, I’m overlooking a wide canal fully loaded with rainwater and debris. The sky is clouding up, and opening like a wound, while menacing storms are once again forecast for the remainder of this week. One solid night of rain and we won’t be able to get out of Kelapa Gading since the road that leads to the toll is amongst the lowest and quickest to flood.

Am I nervous? Not at all. I can once again rescue Novita from the house by way of a life raft. I can jack my car up on blocks or risk driving it to the parking structure of the mall. I can get to higher ground, and will be safely evacuated by military trucks as was the case in 2007. Last time it flooded so badly, I had 9 days off of work and actually went to Hilton and finally to Bali for an unexpected vacation.

But I am nervous for those families who cannot get out. For those with small children who cannot get clean drinking water or medical attention. For those who have risked (or not trusted) not having insurance on their homes, businesses, and cars. And for those who may lose everything yet again.

Is there an answer? Does pouring money into various projects laden with promises solve anything? Do the annual discussions and news articles change anything? Has the government changed much in the past two years? I don’t know. As a foreigner, I don’t feel it’s my place to pass judgment on this situation. Look at what happened in New Orleans, despite the world’s strongest economy there to assist. We watched as Katrina drowned a major U.S. city.

Perhaps even in our civilized modern societies we need reminders that Mother Nature will not be modernized, built over, or be asked to concede in defeat.

  • wicak

    Brandon, well put. We shall see if the expert governor can do something about it. if you take a quick trip out east, and take a look at the flood canals, they are still being built. As usual a lot of displaced residents are not happy, as the price they are asking and being given are far from equal. Fair might be irrelevant as most or some houses are squatters. This is an issue left over from previous regimes.
    A trip into the governors office might reveal that funding for the canals are still being negotiated.
    But take another look at North Jakarta and East Jakarta where houses and malls are being built on huge concrete slabs that do not allow any natural flow of water back into the soil. A lot of talk of bio-pores and absorption wells with very little action has been tabled. So what is happening is that the land is being sucked dry by all the water wells but not allowed to re-absorb rain water. You can imagine a sponge with a lot of weight on top of it. It will resettle. Some experts think that is why North Jakarta is always flooding at extremely high tides, the land has sunk.

  • Luc Defago

    Flooding occurs also because Jakarta has such a big number of high buildings pumping water supply directly from the ground below. This brings Jakarta to gradually sink below sea level so that High tides bring flooding when combined with heavy rain. Systematically, the moon influencing tides makes a quite predictable agenda of floodings.
    One solution would be to build a new water supply system that takes the water in the surrounding areas-mountains.
    The other solution, like Holland, to build a huge dam complex to stop the tides overflowing Jakarta.
    Here an interesting video on youtube on the subject:

  • FELI

    i grew up in kelapa gading, from the age of 3-16 before relocating to the us. back then kelapa gading was a leavy, peaceful, traffic free neighborhood with only one supermarket, one traditional market, and one mall (back then, was named Kelapa Gading Plaza, soon after changed to KGM).

    and although the entire time you’ve lived there dark clouds and heavy rains are almost always ominous signs of flooding, that wasnt always the case. my family and i always looked forward for the rainy season, the noise it made on our red tiled roof, the cool breeze it brought to the hot tropical weather. and never once our streets transformed into canals.

    just a happier reminder of the past that kelapa gading were not always a flood ground. sadly that good old time has gone, eaten away by the irrational, money crazed society. that in a mere 10 years, were able to turn my friendly neighborhood into a frenzy chaotic jumble of ugly malls, mega houses, and yearly floods.

  • hi brandon, sorry to hear about that.. especially for something happens in the beginning of a year.

    I used to live in south jakarta but one time i attended a course in kelapa gading area until 10pm just after it started to rain. I stucked in traffic for almost 2 hours and before I knew it the streets was flooded and my car was half floating like a boat (???)

    hope you still look forward to the next 11 months of 2009..
    send my regards to novita.

  • At the risk of being the cat among the pigeons, I am going to suggest that we Jakartans take a good hard look at ourselves, instead of blaming everyone from Fauzi Bowo to God. The city administration is run by elected officials. Flooding was an election issue. All sorts of promises were made, none of which have been honoured. Jakartans need to hold them accountable. Maybe next election.

  • james kwok

    Hi, loves your commentary!; I saw your passions on the issue and concerns of people’s being, would touch many readers, and hope my comments here can show some hopes for a sustainable solution. In general, I noted from medias various criticisms and blames, as well as excuses. Put those aside, lets see the facts: 1.Jakarta has been floods prone for century, well before the Kelapa developments, etc were even contemplated; 2.Hydrology of Jakarta is 80% at or below sea level, and thus no canals can resist back-flows, hence the very problems; 3.Pursuing greenbelts (with rates of absorptions much less under saturation levels due to hydrology constraints) and canals (due to high pressure back-flows) as a key solution is futile and counter productive.

    Various options are available provide a sustainable solution: 1.Master planning the hydrology for Jakarta…on “as is” basis, means with all the buildings, roads, all attributes, rights or wrong those structures are already there. 2.Master plan on hydrology incorporating for future urbanisations and infrastructures; 3.Develop cheap housings for less privilege and vendors as part of the urbanisations programs; 4.Master planning for schools and hospitals; minimum water and power supplies; 5. Implement back-flows structures and mechanisms; 6. Implement storm water reticulations systems and diversions to avoid back-flows.

    These measures done methodically and taking all of the datas available and coupled with various confirmations, would be possible to be economically implemented within the New terms of the next elected President.

    Every Best Wishes to All and those effected.

  • Boleh boleh….

  • Brandon

    Here’s yet another media article on the subject: (Jakarta Globe) http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/home/article/6259.html

  • I suspect I am going to receive a lot of angry responses to this, but here goes…

    Surely, the starting point – before we start looking at anything else – has to be the public’s attitude to rubbish/trash. The best drainage system in the world will still stop working if people keep throwing all their rubbish in it.

  • FELI

    brandon – yep. been back several times. could not recognize the place any longer. too hot, too congested, and too much goin on. but still, many fond memories there. (TK-SD-SMP-SMA!!!)

    Brett – the public’s attitude towards trash bins is definitely partly to fault. but compared to the rapid over crowding and over building, throwing trash into got and kali is like trowing one grain of sand into the sea. only the fact that almost ALL green patches on KGP is sealed shut with concrete foundation could cause KGP to transform from a flood free zone into a seasonal canal in a mere 6-7 years.

  • @FELI I am talking about flooding in Jakarta generally, as opposed to KGP specifically. Obviously, in North Jakarta the problem relates to overdevelopment and rapid sinking, but this isn’t the problem in the other two thirds of Jakarta. South Jakarta’s perfectly adequate drainage system operates at 50-70& of capacity because of rubbish (that was the figure released in the Jak Post last week). The city’s main canals don’t work because of rubbish. I’d say that’s more than a grain of sand.









  • Thank you for this blog post! I am researching Jakarta's flooding for an urban anthropology class and I'd love to provide a link to your blog. This way I have some personal insights rather than just statistics.

  • Thank you for this blog post! I am researching Jakarta's flooding for an urban anthropology class and I'd love to provide a link to your blog. This way I have some personal insights rather than just statistics.

  • Yes! Excellent writing, continue to keep in place the awesome job