Indecision on Flooding will Cost Jakarta

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  • Illustration of a seawall. Phase A of NCICD, the strengthening of existing coastal seawalls will now be completed. Photo by Max Eagles

    Illustration of a seawall. Phase A of NCICD, the strengthening of existing coastal seawalls will now be completed. Photo by Max Eagles

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Indah remembers exactly the day in December 2007, when torrential rainfall caused 60 percent of Jakarta to be inundated by water, killing 79 people and displacing more than 500,000. “Of course I can remember, I was traumatized, many houses were swept away,” she says.

    Indah operates a small roadside stall in Muara Baru, North Jakarta, one of the poorest and most flooded districts in a megacity of more than 10 million people. Less than six years after the devastation of the 2007 flood, torrential rain and high tides hit Jakarta and her home was submerged again.

    The damage was not as bad, she explains, but standing next to a wall near her stall, Indah points to show how the water level was well above her head. “It lasted almost two weeks,” she says before pointing to her son. “He was a baby at the time and I had to put him in a boat and flee."

    Muara Baru store owner, Indah, shows how high flood waters rose for two weeks in January 2013. Photo by Timothy Shepherd

    After the 2013 flood, then Governor of Jakarta, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, launched the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD), an ambitious and dynamic project promising to protect the city from rising sea levels and severe flooding.

    Since the announcement, the costly plan has been marred by conflict and uncertainty, causing many concerned community groups to call for responses they argue may be less visually spectacular but more effective.

    The first phase of the plan, currently underway, enforced and extended Jakarta’s existing flood protection system. However, as the city continues to sink and sea levels rise due to climate change, the likelihood of severe flooding grows.

    “This coastal protection system is able to protect Jakarta with current land subsidence levels until 2030,” said Peter Letitre, an expert in groundwater management from the Deltares research institute.

    The second component of the plan is to build a 32-kilometer offshore seawall across the Jakarta Bay. The seawall would be capable of closing Jakarta Bay to the ocean entirely, with water pumps utilized to drain the bay’s excess water. Private investors were encouraged to contribute to the project, in exchange for the development rights to 17 artificial islands set to be reclaimed in the new bay.

    A corruption scandal in 2016 involving one of Jakarta’s largest developers led to renewed skepticism of the NCICD, causing President Widodo to order an evaluation of the plan. Jakarta’s current Governor Anies Baswedan was elected promising to review the proposal. Baswedan moved to revoke reclamation of 13 of the artificial islands this year, reducing incentive for international investors.   

    Despite the corruption scandal and subsequent evaluation, both the Jakarta administration and Indonesian government have committed to continue reinforcing the city’s existing coastal seawalls, but it remains uncertain as to whether the signature offshore seawall will be built if there is no private investor involvement.

    Residents in Muara Baru, one of the fastest sinking areas, live below sea level, protected only by a concrete wall. Photo by Timothy Shepherd

    “There is no agreement yet on the financing arrangements for the construction of this outer sea dike,” said Mr. Letitre.

    The Jakarta administration was contacted regarding the future of the outer seawall but has yet to comment. However, the prospect of a wall across the Jakarta Bay has attracted many critics.

    “The people don’t know about his project,” says CEO of Traditional Fisherfolk Union of Indonesia, Marthin Hadiwinata. “They just know they are building something.”

    “The issue is the community has not been consulted properly since the very first planning of the development.”

    The coastal seawall has already disrupted wave patterns within Jakarta Bay, and if the offshore seawall goes ahead, the entire fishing industry will be forced out into deeper waters where it’s more difficult to operate, he says. 

    “The fishing industry in Jakarta Bay is not small-scale,” says Marthin, who estimates up to 25,000 fishermen will be affected by the coastal and offshore seawalls, not including workers from the production and distribution sector. “Muara Baru is one of the biggest fishing ports in Indonesia...if you close the bay it’s going to be a disaster, the pollution from waste-water, plastic and heavy metals, as well as the sedimentation.” 

    Marthin agrees investment in flood prevention is required in at-risk areas like Muara Baru. “The water level is as high as the roof. That needs urgent action and we definitely agree there needs to be some infrastructure in those areas.

    Across Jakarta broadly, the solution is to stop the land from sinking, Marthin says. “Land subsidence is the major problem in North Jakarta and in Jakarta Bay generally, so the first thing is that we have to find a solution to the land subsidence.”

    A decrepit building succumbed to land subsidence in Muara Baru, North Jakarta. Photo by Timothy Shepherd

    Jakarta has developed a reputation as the fastest sinking city in the world. Muara Baru has been especially affected, having subsided more than four meters between 1974 and 2010, according to the Ministry of Public Works. Jakarta’s reliance on groundwater causes the underground aquifer it rests upon to deplete, and the city sinks further into the earth.

    Speaking to journalists at Hotel Mulia on November 21, DKI Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan acknowledged the issue.

    “I have already repeatedly noted that the northern coastal region has experienced quite serious subsidence,” said the Governor.

    Anies said his administration is working on preventing the region sinking by improving drainage in the area, along with the efforts to strengthen North Jakarta’s existing seawalls.

    "This is why there is an NCICD program to build, with the central government, an embankment located on the coast," he said. "This we will continue; we will complete. The expectation is to preserve, to save."

    Land subsidence has threatened Asian coastal megacities similar to Jakarta, such as Tokyo. Japan’s capital sunk 24 centimeters in 1968, a level similar to areas of North Jakarta. Subsidence was effectively halted in Tokyo by developing piped water systems and restricting groundwater extraction. In comparison, Jakarta continues to draw most of its water from deep wells, of which it is estimated over 4000 are illegal. 

    Thanti Octavianti from University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, says in contrast to Tokyo’s approach, the Indonesian and Jakarta governments are more focused on noticeable infrastructure.

    "Small-scale centralized water solutions are less attractive than the NCICD, this big, grand project,” she said. Underground piping and closing illegal wells may go unrecognized. “It’s different with NCICD. It’s vividly visible and creates an infrastructural legacy.

    “The narrative that is built is that we have a seawall, so Jakarta’s flooding will be solved. But it doesn’t solve the root cause of flooding.”

    Kumis, a local fisherman, says some successful changes have been made since the 2013 flood. Photo by Timothy Shepherd

    Kumis is a fisherman who works off the wharf at Muara Baru and remembers when waste and pollution would clog the waterways so that even light rain could flood the area. Following the 2013 flood, the Jakarta administration under the leadership of former governors Jokowi and Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama cleaned the rivers and improved drainage in the area.

    “Their administrations’ work can be seen ... The rivers are clean,” Kumis says.   

    Indah tells a similar story, she says since the flood in early 2013, small improvements have been made and they have not had to leave their home since.  

    “The drains are clean and the houses around the drains have been relocated,” she says. “They also added another embankment pump.”

    Small-scale solutions, such as those implemented in Muara Baru, are being adopted by the Indonesian government and the Jakarta administration in an attempt to reduce flooding. A landmark court case recently terminated the private ownership of the city’s piped water supply, theoretically allowing the Jakarta administration to accelerate the expansion of the network. Yet these measures will fall short if the city continues to draw 65 percent of its water from underground.

    “Stopping illegal groundwater extraction by closing illegal wells can only be achieved through improvement of law enforcement,” says Peter Letitre.   

    A failure to control land subsidence could come at a great environmental and social cost to the city. Deltares modeling suggests that unless construction of the seawall begins within the next four years, parts of North Jakarta may be permanently flooded by 2030. Even with the seawall, by 2055 the bay would need to be closed for several months of the year to allow for excess water to be drained. The exact extent to which closing the bay would impact Jakarta’s environment is unclear. Some researchers have suggested a worst-case scenario in which the city’s polluted water drains into a stagnant bay.

    As plans for the NCICD continue to be changed and delayed, the risk of flooding increases. Both levels of government need to decide whether a focus on a grand infrastructural legacy comes at a cost to smaller, more effective solutions. Each year they delay, the Jakarta Bay comes closer to swallowing vulnerable neighborhoods like Indah’s.

    Tim Shepherd | Max Eagles | Agata Fortuna | Vanessa Hazel 

    Tim Shepherd and Max Eagles traveled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan mobility scheme.