Opinion

Jakarta and the world face
weather disasters

Bushfires and floods in Australia; civil war in Mali and a deadly hostage crisis in Algeria; persistent floods in Jakarta and northern Java; horrific air quality in Beijing and northern China; what do they have in common? All of them have been caused by climate change.

Certainly, it is easier to talk about climate change and global warming in Indonesia than in the West. We do not have high-profile skeptics who maintain that extreme weather conditions have always been there, even before human activity. Indonesian media agree that there are such things as global warming and climate change — and that they are caused by countries, including America.

A newspaper article is not the best place to debate the validity of global warming theory, and science is not my strength. But, these two facts stand.

First, being a ball revolving in space, the Earth has experienced episodes of climate change from the deserting of the Sahara at the dawn of history to the Little Ice Age from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Second, every spot on the planet now pollutes water, air, and land through industrial waste and carbon emissions from factories and motor vehicles.

Only a minority of major cities in the world have working waste management programs, decent air quality and clean rivers. For most of the world, safe and open public parks, vibrant public transportation and pristine riverside promenades are pie in the sky.

Most readers of this newspaper are concerned with the regular flooding of Jakarta. Certainly, rain is always intense in tropical Southeast Asia but, fortunately, most of the region does not have to deal with typhoons, as does the Philippines.

Thailand experienced heavy flooding in the second half of 2011, while any case of flooding in Singapore would cause uproar from its citizens.

The Malaysian state of Johor also experiencing flooding, but it is the case of Jakarta that has attracted world attention, along with the brown, smoggy air of Beijing.

Most Jakartans agree that flooding is caused by human activity. The most cited cause, to the point of being a cliché, is trash. Unfortunately, by next month, we can expect people to start throwing away plastic bottles and papers anywhere they want.

 The more depressing fact is when people do dispose of garbage in a responsible manner and yet it is not collected on time or in an adequate fashion.

Well-sorted garbage from your bin can sit in a cart for a week, then in a square for another month, before ending up somewhere by the river — or even in the river.

Nobody denies that Jakarta’s environment is damaged — possibly beyond repair. It is the only major Southeast Asian capital without a mass transit system (and with significant gaps in its bus rapid transit system).

Malls could boast indoor parks and yet their front yards are adorned by sewers, piles of garbage and clogged roads. The floods have proved that many skyscrapers do not have adequate drainage systems.

While its waterfront location naturally carries the risk of water hazards everywhere, the severity of the flooding in northern Jakarta is due to the lack of trees and the overconsumption of underground water for industry, residences and businesses. Japan and Singapore show that land reclamation is manageable as long as there are plenty of trees, dikes and floodgates.

Residents in closed-gate estates tell stories of public parks and green spaces being converted into gas stations and office space. Greed kills trees and, in the end, nobody grows richer.

Even the terrible situation in Mali is connected to climate change. High levels of carbon dioxide have changed the movements of air streams over tropical West Africa, dropping rain further south and, thus, making the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, including northern Mali, drier.

The impoverished Tuareg people and the Arabs have rebelled, and joining them are a weapon surplus and Islamist fighters from the Libyan civil war.

While the Tuareg demand independence to become the state of Azawad, the Ansar Dine and MOJWA groups want Mali to become an Islamic state and, in the process, African Islamic heritage sites in the city of Timbuktu are being destroyed. They firmly argue that both drought and floods are divine punishments.

The inability of the African military, both in Mali and Algeria, to deal effectively with the rebellions, follows a long historical pattern on how climate change can spark rebellions and invasions.

It also changes the behavior of governments. The Chinese government used to dismiss pollution data released by the United States Embassy in Beijing as a smear campaign, but now acknowledges that things are really not okay or normal.

The dusting of northern Chinese cities is not merely caused by seasonal winds carrying dust and sand from the Gobi Desert, but by unchecked industrialization and the increased use of heavy vehicles and trucks.

Both the bushfires in Australia and heavy snows in Europe during January are realities of life. But the extreme temperatures are due to deteriorating environmental health. The path to recovery is extremely hard since both developed and developing countries blame each other for the pollution.

Many developed nations have abandoned their environmental commitments for fear of economic hardship, while many developing countries argue that they need to keep the home fires burning — they do not want to remain impoverished.

Indonesia must do what it can. We can start, for example, by consuming less food and goods and determine our shopping priorities based on personal necessity rather than group mentality or personal vanity.

More importantly, we should stop promoting environmental awareness for the sake of following a fashionable trend and start to practice it for the sake of ourselves.

That, of course, is a tall order. Many ideas that are still a challenge in developed countries, such as riding bikes and walking, shopping locally and recycling, are almost impossible to implement here.

But, if you can do something by yourself or with your loved ones, to make Jakarta or your hometown a little more environmentally friendy, please do it. A little change is better than nothing.

The writer teaches English and Australian cultural studies at Uni-Bridge, St. Aloysius High School, Bandung.

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