The first months of 2020 saw Jakarta hit by successive severe floods that hampered economic activities and caused hardships for its residents. Overnight, the public and the media fixed their eyes on Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and his flood prevention policies and programs, with some people going so far as to compare Anies with his predecessor, Basuki “BTP” Tjahaja Purnama.
Here, we seek to critique the fundamental ways in which flooding has been managed thus far in Jakarta (and other areas in Indonesia), and attempt to offer a new management paradigm for this multidimensional problem.
To start with, we must understand the broader flood control policies adopted in Jakarta. Under BTP (then called "Ahok"), the focus seemed to be on rehabilitating and rebuilding flood control infrastructure, like canals and waterways that were not functioning optimally due to riverbank settlements or shallow water flow. Such policy then became known as ”normalization”.
This policy follows the conventional approach to flood management that was established in the colonial era, namely that floods could and should be controlled with the use of hard infrastructure.
According to urban development experts Kelly Shannon and Bruno de Meulder in 2013, the canal system that was built in Batavia – the Dutch colonial name for present-day Jakarta – represented attempts by the colonial government to replicate Amsterdam’s flood management system. Unfortunately, this system, which focuses on removing water from a city and covering the riverbank with concrete, was unsuited to Batavia’s geography.
Unlike Amsterdam, where the rivers are relatively clean and calm, Jakarta’s rivers are rich in volcanic materials and flow profusely. The combination of the manmade canals, which are water impermeable by design, the heavy flow and high turbidity of the water have led to quicker blockage of Jakarta's rivers and hence, greater risk of flooding.
In fact, flooding was a normal occurrence in colonial Jakarta, when the town had a lower population, lower volume of upstream runoff and less environmental damage.
Furthermore, many other cities in Indonesia continue to experience flooding and flood damage, despite being equipped with massive flood control infrastructures including dykes, canals, levees and dams. According to urban infrastructure professor Johan Woltjer, this higher frequency in failed flood control measures is a result of climate change, which has aggravated the volume of water that such cities must manage.
The conventional approach to flood management that Jakarta and other cities in Indonesia have continued to adopt are increasingly becoming obsolete. Flood management and urban development experts suggest that cities need to change their flood management paradigm from avoiding water (flood control) to accepting water (flood adaptation).
Some scholars argue further that we need to live in harmony with flooding if we want to reduce flood damage. In Singapore, public housing (HDB flats) have a semi-outdoor ground floor supported by pillars (pilotis) that are prohibited from use as private housing units. These pilotis-type structures are designed deliberately for inundation to prevent flood damage.
Meanwhile, in Hamburg, Germany, buildings can be connected using temporary footbridges built above flood level. When flooding occurs, the streets are left to inundate intentionally, while the city's residents can still travel by walking along the footbridges or by boat.
This culture of living harmoniously with water is not new to Indonesia. Sociologist Hans-Dieter Evers writes of traditional stilt structures, found in many areas of the country, that are designed to ensure that its inhabitants are safe from the frequent flooding and remain dry above the muddy ground.
Additionally, the deprived communities of Kampung Kerang Ijo (which means "green mussel village") in Muara Angke, North Jakarta, have reduced damage from coastal flooding by applying their local knowledge. The inhabitants have not only built bamboo stilt houses, but also reclaimed land by buildings mounds from mollusk shells – instead of soil and rock, the materials commonly used by Jakartan urbanites to elevate land. This combination of stilt houses and permeable surfacing of the ground – which is strong enough to hold the weight of a car – ensures that excess water from the coastal floods that occur periodically in the area can be absorbed quickly and not reach the interior of the houses.
Anies’ approach, which employs the naturalization of rivers to create more space to absorb water, is the correct step toward flood adaptation. Yet, the public deserves to know his grand design and detailed implementation plans.
Clearly, greater public participation and collaboration need to be integrated in the city's spatial planning, particularly to incorporate the customary knowledge of local communities on living harmoniously with floods and guiding urban development accordingly. Only then, will Anies be able to realize what he envisioned at the start of his governorship: the community-led and community-empowered development of Jakarta that relies on gotong royong (mutual cooperation). Don’t wait until the streets are already flooded.
Adam Madigliani Prana is a geography doctoral candidate at the School of Earth and Environment, the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fakhridho S.B.P. Susilo is a policy and governance doctoral candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University (ANU), in Canberra, Australia.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.