Flooding in Jakarta: A City Swamped by Its Own Success

Clogged canals and aging infrastructure aren’t the only factors intensifying Jakarta’s perennial flood crises.

Image
Reuters

Early last year, the World Bank issued an “urgent flood mitigation report” about the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta, along with a $189 million flood mitigation plan. The action was precipitated by a series of bad floods that hit every year in the monsoon season, and reached a peak in 2007. That year, rising waters which forced at least 350,000 of the city’s 10 million inhabitants from their homes, killed 70, caused a massive outbreak of disease, and resulted in some $900 million in damage. Such inundations, the World Bank report suggests, are going to become routine events in Asia’s 13th-largest city:

Flood events in Jakarta are expected to become more frequent in coming years, with a shift from previously slow natural processes with low frequency to a high frequency process resulting in severe socio-economic damage.

Well, Jakarta is flooding again this week in the wake of heavy rains, and this year looks to be a bad one. The city, with its booming population and economy, has been crippled by the floods, which are already higher than the 2007 deluge. The waters have reached the Presidential Palace. Thousands are evacuating. Cars sit abandoned in the impassable roads. Public transit has come to a standstill. Travel through the streets, even on foot, is nearly impossible in much of the capital. Forecasts call for an intensifying monsoon over the next few days, and the situation is bound to worsen. The government has declared a state of emergency through at least January 27.

The problem of flooding in Jakarta is hardly a new one. It is a place defined by its relationship to water: 13 rivers flow through the city, and 40 percent of the current settlement lies below sea level. The Dutch, who took control of the area in the early 17th century and ruled for some 300 years, called their colonial outpost in this place Batavia, and proceeded to build an extensive canal system that echoed the one in their native country. Dutch engineers are part of the effort to maintain the canal network to this day, more than 60 years after Indonesian independence.

Today, that network – which the city still relies on to control flooding – is under terrible strain. Rising sea levels and extreme weather are worsening the city’s naturally precarious situation. And Jakarta’s waterways are clogged in many places with garbage and contaminated by the sewage that flows into them unchecked. The World Bank’s plan calls for dredging and rehabilitating 11 floodways and canals, as well as four retention basins. Repair and upgrading of floodgates and related infrastructure are also part of the mitigation effort.

But clogged canals and aging infrastructure aren’t the only factors intensifying Jakarta’s perennial flood crises. The city’s commercial success is, in effect, undermining it.

"The biggest problem is the drinking water is mostly groundwater-based," said Dale Morris, an American economist who works with the Dutch government on water management in the U.S. and is familiar with the nation’s flood mitigation efforts around the world. The rate at which that groundwater is being extracted is causing the city to sink by as much as 10 to 12 centimeters per year. The weight of all those new residential, commercial, and office buildings is also contributing to the subsidence, as is the constant excavation for construction of the wealthy new city. Jakarta is collapsing under the weight of its own success.

This week, one business leader estimated the economic impact of the flooding at perhaps $150,000 per hour. Employees simply can’t get to work, he told the Jakarta Globe:

[Deputy Chairman of the Jakarta Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) Sarman Simanjorang] declared that the floods could not be tolerated in the capital.

“In this case, we hope the central government will fully support the Jakarta administration in solving [this problem],” Sarman said. “If necessary, the president should establish a united team that coordinates facility and infrastructure development to free Jakarta from flooding.”

This week, as the water keeps rising, the scale of that challenge more apparent than ever.

Top image: Children play in a flooded area in Jakarta. (Enny Nuraheni/Reuters)

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.