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.