Jakarta flooding: the underestimated natural disaster

April 2017

Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, is home to thirteen million people and faces the severe threat of urban flooding. Urban flooding is an underestimated natural disaster. It flies under the radar of international news reports and causes reoccurring damages for impacted communities like the ones in Jakarta. Jakarta is the fastest subsiding city in the world.  With sea levels rising and urban poor populations increasing, it is no wonder that 40 per cent of Jakarta is currently under sea level.

The Jakarta floods come annually in the peak of their wet season, during January and February each year. During 2007, the Jakarta flood left 80 people dead, another 500,000 people internally displaced and 70,000 homes flooded.  Additionally, 190,000 people were impacted with flood-related illnesses, including dengue fever and other waterborne diseases.  More recently in 2013, 47 people living in Jakarta lost their lives to severe flooding. A Jakarta police spokesperson, Ketut Untung Yoga Ana, described the horrific deaths from the floods; "twenty have died since the first day of flooding. Seven were dragged under by strong currents, nine were electrocuted and the others because of sickness.”

Several major human rights violations arise from the natural disaster of flooding within Jakarta. The right to life, to safety and security, the right to food and water, and the right to land and housing; these are justifiable to every living person, yet are completely destroyed in the scenario of natural disasters.

Those most at risk are communities living alongside riverbanks. When the heavy rain coincides with high tides, the water from the river overflows and takes the strongest toll on those living closest to the river – often the poorest communities in Jakarta.

The Ciliwung River Community lives on the rivers’ edge. Whilst they are often severely impacted by the Jakarta floods, this area is their home, and there is no place they’d rather be. However, they are currently facing threats of eviction.

I met with Gugun Muhammad from the Urban Poor Consortium and he said that; “the government of Jakarta thinks that the Ciliwung River community should not be established around the river because it dirties the river, looks ‘slum-like’, and causes flooding.  But our community feels that these are not the real reasons why the government wants to evict us.” Ever since the government gave the Ciliwung River Community the letter of eviction, they gathered together to discuss how they would peacefully fight against the eviction and make their community cleaner and safer, in anticipation of future flooding.

The Ciliwung River Community is now thriving. It is a bright and colourful mix of painted homes and pegged clothes on hanging lines over the edges of the river. They are taking responsible steps towards sustainability, in order to protect their livelihoods and their future. Members of the community are uniting to tidy up households and clean rubbish from waterways to prevent flooding. They have implemented a communal septic tank, now they no longer throw their waste into the water, which makes the river cleaner and safer for the community.  They are becoming environmentally friendly by installing compost systems for food scraps and recycling their plastics, instead of it all being thrown into the river.

Gugun Muhammad said that the logic of the community is “if it’s dirty then we clean it up, if it’s untidy then we tidy it up… If your hair is dirty, then you wash it, not shave it all off – but that’s what the government is trying to do to us.”

The Ciliwung River Community faces the double burden of flooding and eviction from the place that they have called home for so long. They lack rights to land and have their human rights to security and safety violated during the impact of natural disasters.  But the measures that they are taking, measures of sustainable living, education on safe water and recycling practices, and cleaning up of waste are not only flood preventive methods, but also preventatives to the threat of eviction.

When I left the Ciliwung River Community that day, I did not feel saddened by their situation. Sure, it impacted me in ways beyond my comprehension. But ultimately I left feeling a sense of empowerment in the air. I met leaders that were implementing sustainable plans for their community, I met women that were transforming plastic waste into beautiful handbags, and I met young children who excitedly collected rubbish and placed it into the recycling bins – knowing that the small acts they were doing had a much larger purpose and impact.