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Jakarta Post

The politics of flood alleviation in Jakarta

  • Ian Wilson

    The Jakarta Post

Murdoch, Western Australia   /   Sat, September 5, 2015   /  04:11 pm

The violent evictions in Kampung Pulo have once again drawn attention to the politics of flood alleviation in Jakarta and the tenuous place of the city'€™s poorer residents.

As with previous evictions in Pluit, Muara Baru and Ria Rio, and the many more scheduled to be carried out over the coming months, the justification given by the city administration has been on two separate but interrelated fronts.

The first is that it is necessary to alleviate the city'€™s chronic flooding by restoring the capacity of its main waterways, drainage and catchment areas.

The second is that it is a much needed assertion of the rule of law and attempt to bring '€œorder'€ to Jakarta'€™s chaos, in particular the illegal occupation of land.

Each has played a powerful role in shaping policy and public opinion, particularly amongst the city'€™s middle-classes, and hence are worthy of some critical examination.

In 2013 the city administration began, after years of delays, the Jakarta Urgent Flood Mitigation Project Dredging Initiative, or JUFMP. At a cost of US$190 million, most of it loaned from the World Bank, its objective is to '€œnormalize'€ the capacity of existing waterways.

The concept of waterway '€œnormalization'€ is something of a misnomer considering that the norm has been regular and periodically catastrophic flooding.

In part this is an inevitable historical consequence of building the administrative centre of the former colonial regime, national capital and now heaving megacity, on a swampy plain.

The intensity and frequency of flooding has, however, increased significantly in recent years. The floods of 2007 and 2013 for example were some of the worst in recorded history, inundating up to 40 percent of Jakarta.

Experts have identified a number of key causes. One is subsidence. Jakarta is quite literally sinking under the weight of its own development, with estimates of land sinkage ranging from 10-26cm per year. The impacts of subsidence are further exacerbated by rising sea-levels linked to climate-change and the destruction of remaining coastal mangroves with some areas already 6 meters below sea-level.

Another factor is increased rain run-off from surrounding highlands due to deforestation and soil erosion.

Here the largely unregulated spread of luxury villas in and around Bogor has been a significant contributing cause.

Third, which the JUFMP project seeks to address, is the reduced capacity of existing waterways due to the long-term build-up of sediment and waste. The most significant source of this is industrial waste pouring into waterways from factories and industrial estates.

Of the roughly 6,000 tons of rubbish produced daily in the capital up to a third of this also finds its way into the river system, the result of both bad habits and the absence of adequate municipal waste disposal services.

What is the relationship between this and the residents of neighborhoods such as Kampung Pulo? Empirically, very little.

World Bank project assessment reports make clear that these communities are not a cause of flooding. Where evictions are considered necessary it is ostensibly in order to clear sufficient space for waterway inspection roads and extend concrete embankments.

Why then has the administration repeatedly claimed that river-dwelling residents are to blame for floods and carried out evictions well beyond project requirements? This becomes clearer when we examine the second justification for eviction: the illegal occupation of land.

In practice it is less about enforcing the law than it is about pushing a specific neoliberal vision of development and order that benefits elites.

In the tangled and murky web of land ownership laws in Jakarta, '€œlegality'€ of tenure is often determined by money, connections and political imperatives rather than the exercise of any clear or impartial legal process. The poor are structurally disadvantaged within such a system.

For decades Kampung Pulo was for all intent and purposes a '€œlegitimate'€ neighborhood. It was included within local government administrative structures and budgets and was connected to the national electricity grid.

Residents regularly paid land tax and many traced an inter-generational continuity of residence extending prior to the establishment of the Indonesian Republic.

Its transformation into a '€œden of squatters'€ occurred with shocking speed, evidence of how easily illegality and an attendant loss of rights can be politically manufactured.

Low cost rental apartments or rusun have been offered to eligible residents. However these create new sets of challenges. Apartment design and management ignores the socio-economic reality of the poor.

Residents are prohibited from operating home enterprises or modifying apartments to accommodate extended families.

Limited shop space is prohibitively expensive. Many experience a loss of social and economic autonomy compounded by the fragmenting of crucial networks of support and opportunity.

The move towards rusun-ification of the poor looks set to increase in momentum. As one senior government advisor told me, '€œJakarta'€™s future must be vertical'€.

Ultimately, in this view, the poor should be moved from urban kampong into multi-storey estates, freeing up space for public-private partnership ventures and key political and economic constituents.

It would also further the spatial divide between social classes.

Infrastructure is rarely, if ever, simply a technical matter. It reflects, produces and reinforces relations of power and coalitions of social, political and economic interest.

The JUFMP provides the city administration with a Trojan horse for a broader neo-liberal vision for reordering the city and the place of the poor within it.

Meanwhile many complicit in contributing to flooding woes remain seemingly immune. Of the numerous malls and gated estates built on allocated green zones, water absorption areas or protected mangroves, none to date have been the subject of the governor'€™s apparent zeal for law and order. Most have been able to procure '€˜legality'€™ in some form.

Land reclamation projects by developer oligarchs such as Agung Podomoro and Agung Sedayu Group are even heralded as potential saviors of the city.

The proposed Pluit City development or current private island building in Pantai Indah Kapuk are being sold as buffering the city from flooding while, incidentally, turning swathes of Jakarta Bay, a national asset, into luxury waterfront property.

Both are significant contributors of Corporate Social Responsibility funds used by the Jakarta administration for its flood alleviation and rusun programs.

Selective and contradictory assertion of the '€œrule of law'€ points to a clear politics of interest in flood alleviation measures in Jakarta, one in which the poor and vulnerable remain scapegoats and soft targets while powerful private economic interests still exercise a largely free reign to shape the city in ways antithetical to the public good.


The writer is a lecturer in politics and developments studies and a research fellow at the Asia Research Center, Murdoch University, Western Australia.

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