Jakarta: the future Lost City of Atlantis?

Severe monsoon floods have occurred throughout Jakarta for the last few weeks. According to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, these floods were caused by heavy rains that overflowed several rivers around the city and to the surrounding crowded housing complexes. A statement put out by Sabdo Kurnianto, the acting head of Jakarta’s National Board for Disaster Management, stated that floodwaters have reached heights of 1,8 meters in the southern and eastern parts of the city. This has forced more than 1,000 people to evacuate their homes over the weekend.

The Indonesian Meteorological Agency (BMKG) has put out a warning for possible heavier rain and more extreme weather conditions around the Greater Jakarta area throughout the upcoming week.

How long have these floods been occuring?

The Indonesian capital have been struggling with floods for centuries, tracing all the way back to the colonial rule of the Dutch East Indies and went by the name of “Batavia”. Since its independence, several major floods have occurred.

  1. In 1960, the suburb of Grogol flooded up to the knee and waist.
  2. In 1996, 5000 hectares of land were flooded.
  3. In 2007, it was estimated that approximately 5.2 trillion rupiahs of infrastructure damage were caused by major floods, with 70% of Jakarta’s area flooded up to four meters high.
  4. In 2013, one of the biggest floods that have occurred in Jakarta was recorded due to the collapse of a 30-meter-long section of Jakarta’s West Flood Canal, forcing 20,000 people to evacuate and flooding several other surrounding areas of West Java and Banten.
  5. Recently in 2020, major floods occurred throughout Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerang, and Bekasi due to heavy downpours estimated at three times the average amount. This caused the Ciliwung and Cisadane rivers to overflow, with water levels reaching up to 30 to 200 cm.

    In some areas, the water peaked at 4 meters. Various transportation networks were disrupted, including the airport, and officials were forced to cut power in many areas of the city due to safety reasons. At least 48 deaths were reported due to flood-related diseases and disasters.

What is causing these floods?

There are many theories as to why these floods have been occurring and increasing in their intensity.

Geographical location

The Jakarta Special District area is divided between approximately 600 km2 of landmass and more than 6000 km2 of sea area. The city of Jakarta lies in a low, flat basin with its northern parts mostly lying below sea level and comparatively hilly southern areas. Furthermore, it is home to over 10 million people as of 2020, with a population density among the highest in the world. The city acts as the nation’s commercial, financial, and political center.

Furthermore, several rivers such as the Ciliwung and Pesanggarahan River, flow from the Puncak highlands across the city and north towards the Java sea. The overflowing of these rivers has been a key cause of several floods throughout its history.

Due to its geographical location and features, the area of Jakarta has always been prone to flooding. Combined with its densely populated urban area and lack of greenery, floodings happen more frequently.

Climate Change and Pollution

Various experts have pointed to climate change as a crucial factor behind the repeated instance of severe flooding across the Greater Jakarta district. The BMKG reported record-breaking average temperatures in most Indonesian provinces, with Jakarta’s average temperature increasing by 0.82 degrees Celcius in 2020. A significant correlation between this temperature rise and the increased concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the city caused by transportation, industrial processes, and deforestation has been found. It is because of these factors that extreme weather conditions are happening more frequently and with greater intensity.

Some studies have also pointed to rising sea levels as another factor that has put Jakarta at risk of sinking. According to a report done by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), sea levels are rising 3.6 millimeters per year since 2019. Other than more frequent floodings, rising sea levels also put the city at risk of “greater damage from storms, faster rates of erosion and shrinking water resources if seawater infiltrates aquifers – not to mention the enormous cost of protecting or relocating populations, infrastructure, and buildings and the disruption to business operations and supply chains” as stated on the IPCC report.

Another factor that plays into frequent floods in the city of Jakarta is the extent of its water pollution. Most of the rivers that go through Jakarta are polluted by rubbish, chemicals, and industrial waste. This waste comes from both industries and households that are located near the rivers. A 2017 report found that the Water Hygiene Management Unit of the Environmental Agency picks up about 100 tons of waste in rivers every day. The government has mitigated some of this issue, addressing 760 out of the total 1,119 connecting channels across the Jakarta area as of March 2017.

Lack of infrastructure, government failures, and the sinking issue

Lack of infrastructure is arguably the most important cause of Jakarta’s frequent severe floods. Over 60% of the population obtains water illegally through groundwater pumping due to the lack of piped water networks. This illegal groundwater pumping provides nearly 2/3 of Jakarta’s freshwater demand. As a result of this massive groundwater extraction, the soil beneath compacts and collapses, causing the ground above it to sink. According to a study by the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Jakarta sinks at a rate of about 1 to 15 cm per year. In combination with rising sea levels and the hyper urbanization of the city, 95% of the Northern Jakarta district is at risk of being submerged by 2050.

What has the government done to solve the issue?

The Indonesian government has expressed plans to move the capital from Jakarta to Borneo in an effort to decrease its high population density. However, some citizens have criticized this move as running away from the issue instead of solving it. Several have expressed concerns about the move as catering only to the interests of political actors instead of the citizens of Jakarta. This criticism is further supported by the belief that the majority of its more than 10 million citizens would still stay in Jakarta.

The Jakarta City government has implemented several efforts to mitigate the risk and eliminate the impact. These activities include the revitalization of pumping houses and a massive campaign against littering. However, river pollution continues to be an issue in Jakarta as few policies have been implemented towards the root cause of the problem; the lack of household waste management forcing residents to throw waste into the rivers and the lack of waste management incentives for industries.

Several other projects are set to mitigate and direct water flows away from neighborhoods. Among these is the construction of the Cimahi and Ciawi dams in West Java and a 40 billion dollar gigantic sea wall along the Java sea. However, many of these projects have not gone under construction. The gigantic sea wall project has now been delayed until 2022 and it was predicted to take approximately take 30 years to finish. By that time, experts predict large parts of Jakarta to already be submerged.

Although, there are many doubts about the projects. Professor Christophe Girot of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology told National Geographic that, “It’s treating the symptoms, not the cause”. He believes that the biggest factor to Jakarta’s severe floods is excessive groundwater pumping and the lack of access to freshwater for a large part of the Jakarta population. Up to today, no efforts have been implemented to solve the groundwater pumping issue.

How can we be part of the solution?

While it seems that the issue of excessive groundwater pumping can only be solved through government action and the building of infrastructure (let’s just hope politicians get their act together), there are still many ways we, as Indonesian citizens, can help mitigate the issue. According to an article by Vice, Indonesia is home to the most climate change deniers in the World. A global poll conducted by YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project states that one in five Indonesians denies human-driven climate change. This is odd for a country well acquainted with the effects of climate change and its impact on people’s everyday lives.

Nobody wants to see our capital go underwater. Therefore, we need to start taking climate change more seriously. Continue on increasing the awareness of environmental issues. Sit down with your parents, friends, and colleagues and have these important conversations. And most importantly, the next time you order from Gojek or Ubereats, think about where that styrofoam container is gonna end up.


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