Researchers from the Future Cities Laboratory at Singapore ETH Centre and ETH Zurich in collaboration with Jakarta Property Institute
Few people would dream of the Ciliwung River corridor becoming a place of leisure like Central Park in New York City. What if you knew that some 150 years ago, Central Park was built on top of the old slums of Upper Manhattan, conceived then principally to store and manage the water resources of Manhattan.
If so, is it inconceivable that together, Jakarta and West Java could create its very own “Central Park” by transforming the flood-prone Ciliwung River into a water resource and open park for the city?
What is needed to make this a reality is a strong vision to transform the river to the first public green corridor of cities and regions in its watershed.
Indeed, the Ciliwung that runs through the cities of Bogor, Depok and Jakarta, offers a unique possibility of creating a liveable river corridor. With approximately 5 million people residing within the Ciliwung River’s 384-square-kilometer catchment, the benefits and urgency of making this vision a reality should not be understated.
The Ciliwung is however heavily polluted as a result of industrial and agricultural waste discharge occurring primarily in the middle stream.
Untreated domestic waste also dumped into the river and untreated urban runoff from Bogor, Depok and Jakarta worsen the problem.
Not surprisingly, the river is in no way a raw water source for Jakarta, which has, instead, been relying on groundwater as its main source. Studies, however, showed that the shallow groundwater system in Jakarta is highly polluted with contaminants.
The city needs a better source of water and a better environment, it is, therefore, worthwhile to invest in a long term vision for Ciliwung.
Can we change the identity of the entire Ciliwung River Valley in Jakarta and West Java into an exemplary and productive landscape, where the improved quality of life adds value to the society within a healthier and economically sustainable environment for Jakarta?
Transforming the highly degraded Ciliwung into an exemplary landscape that promotes the sustainable and equitable use of water for the regions requires not only time and resources, but more importantly, continued political support and expertise through strategic partnerships with civil society, research institutions and industry.
The Ciliwung offers a unique possibility of creating a liveable river corridor.
Five years ago, the Future Cities Laboratory based in Singapore initiated a collaborative research project on the Ciliwung, bringing together ETH Zurich — the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich — and Indonesian institutions including the University of Indonesia (UI), Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) and Bogor Agricultural University (IPB).
With local involvement, the project aimed to develop solutions to address flooding, water quality, and ecology that meet the needs of the local population, while responding to pressures of a growing megacity.
More importantly, the team offers “river rehabilitation” as a holistic and sustainable alternative to “normalization”. Indeed, the river cannot be understood in isolation.
A multidisciplinary approach is necessary to study a complex system such as a 119-kilometer river with 5 million people residing within its catchment.
Moreover, a multi-scale framework puts the spotlight not just on settlements inhabited by the local community, but also the river corridor and the entire river catchment.
Focusing on the natural and engineered environment, the integrated framework links urban fabric and river dynamics, prioritizing ecosystem services, integrating the river and the people, and finally developing river corridor rehabilitation scenarios.
The guiding principles of river rehabilitation are to restore the ecosystem services that the catchment and the river are capable of.
While “ecosystem service” is widely understood among scholars, it may not mean anything to the community along the riverbank.
The survey results showed that the economic benefits of a more ecological approach to the rehabilitation of the Ciliwung extends beyond the areas along the river corridor.
During fieldwork along the river, researchers found that integrating local knowledge into the river rehabilitation plan goes a long way in creating a more sustainable and ecologically sound design.
The outcome was a proposal for the site level, enhanced with local knowledge, that covers a wider range of social and ecological goals beyond flood protection and mitigation.
At the scale of the river corridor, catchment management and localized site interventions can be integrated as a holistic proposal for the river system.
At this scale, the merits of this integrated approach, compared to the “normalization” approach, become even more apparent.
The Ciliwung River Project is driven by the vision that combined efforts of research institutions, hydrologists and hydraulic engineers, landscape architects, urban planners and developers can improve the landscape and water quality of the urban river while mitigating flood risk.
More importantly, stakeholders must be strongly committed to implementing these innovative solutions. Recognizing the Ciliwung River as a public space and natural corridor presents an important opportunity for the region, and could well be the “tipping point” in taking the plunge towards a long term commitment for environmental improvement.
Many Asian cities, such as Seoul and Singapore, have improved their urban river landscapes considerably in recent decades.
This has boosted their global image and enabled them to reap economic benefits that far surpass the investment in river rehabilitation. The Ciliwung River park could become the bearer of such a strong landscape vision for Jakarta.
Research by the Future Cities Laboratory shows that beyond solving immediate engineering challenges and improving risk management, the Ciliwung River Project is as much about the reinvention of the river as a brand for Jakarta and West Java — a brand capable of projecting a strong and positive environmental image with sustainable goals.
The rehabilitation of the Ciliwung would not only contribute to Greater Jakarta’s nature-friendly image, but would invite the population of West Java and Jakarta to reconsider an appreciation of their other rivers as a dignified part of their urban landscape.
If becoming the Central Park of the East seems far-fetched for the Ciliwung at this stage, taking the first step towards river rehabilitation could put Jakarta in the league of other major Asian cities that dared to engage for the change.
But first, someone needs to take the first political step towards a long term commitment, to take the first plunge towards a better environment for all.
The writers are researchers from the Future Cities Laboratory at Singapore ETH Centre and ETH Zurich in collaboration with Jakarta Property Institute.
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