Jakarta’s sinking, filthy future

Roanne van Voorst looks deeper into Jakarta’s “revitalization”.

According to the politicians working in Jakarta, Indonesia’s megacity capital, this city is turning into `the place to be’. By 2018, they promise that a city known for its slums, floods and garbage will be `100% slum free, flood free and garbage free’. It will thus be clean, modern and attractive for both inhabitants and visitors, who might especially enjoy the green running tracks that will have been developed alongside formarly clogged rivers, and the seaside residential neighbourhoods in the North, where one can shop and live in style. Ideally, Jakarta’s great transformation will be complete by 2018 (when the Asia Games take place in the city), but there may be some work left to do.

As unrealistic as these announcements may seem to people who have visited Jakarta, they should by no means be considered hollow phrases. The current generation of politicians in Jakarta don’t just talk; they are actually getting things done. Everybody who has recently visited the city will have noticed that politicians, advisors and developers are making  enormous efforts to change Jakarta’s negative image. Slums have been torn down; roads have been constructed; Dutch water experts are building a 32 km-long wall to protect the Northern coast from a rising sea;  programmes have been initiated to dredge garbage from canals; parks have been created; and run-down colonial houses are being demolished and replaced by Grande Plazas.

So the problem is not that nothing happens in Jakarta. The problem is that what is happening is of no use because none of these programs address the root causes of Jakarta’s challenges. The sad fact is that Jakarta’s future is more likely to include more, larger floods, deeper poverty for slum residents, and tides of feces flowing past seaside villas. The impacts of climate changes — more rainfall and rising sea levels — might make you think of Jakarta as `the city you definitely want to avoid’ in the future.

Let me give some context to that rather gloomy vision. Jakarta’s already serious flooding problems are caused by multiple factors, of which urban mismanagament is perhaps most important. For decades, politicians have prioritized commercial developments over public services. The lack of an effective garbage collection system means that most households dump their rubbish in the rivers. Affordable housing shortages have led the city’s poor to build their houses in the river’s flood plains. Only half of households receive piped water, so everyone else pumps groundwater. The resulting land subsidence means the city is sinking by 3 to 20 cm per year — a problematic trend even before considering the additional danger of sea  levels that are rising by 6 mm per year in Jakarta Bay. Finally, remember that falling groundwater and land elevations are damaging the city’s drainage, drinking water and sewerage systems.

The current trend towards short-term, superficial solutions might seem to be improving the city’s livability, but they are merely sweeping real problems under the carpet. These problems can be solved, but solutions demand long-term political commitments to providing piped water, sewerage, and social housing.

Building a wall to protect from sea level rise will not help if the land continues to subside. Dredging canals will not protect the city from  flooding if people continue to live where the river needs to flood and dump their garbage in canals. New villas will not provide safe and glamorous lifestyles if rising rivers dump faeces and garbage on their lawns.


marijn-smuldersRoanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Sciences, Erasmus University, The Hague, the Netherlands. In 2014 she obtained her PhD (with distinction) at the Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research on responses of slum dwellers in Jakarta, Indonesia to the risks of recurrent floods and evictions. She has also done research on the social effects of climate changes in Greenland. Currently Roanne is involved in the research project ”When disaster meets conflict. Disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios”.

Which endures — passports or humans?

David Zetland thinks passports will become more important. The interesting question is if they will make you more important.

The first passports were issues centuries ago, but it wasn’t until after World War I that travelers needed them to cross borders, prove their identity, and protect their rights as citizens, both domestically and abroad.

Passports allowed their holders to “pass through the port [gate]” of new diplomatic and bureaucratic walls. People without passports could not pass from their original country to another country. (Illegal crossings could only go so far before they were prevented.)

Passports are valuable precisely because they separate humans into two groups: those who may pass, and those who may not.

In many cases, people do not worry about this difference because they do not care to leave their countries of origin, but there are numerous examples of people taking dramatic risks or paying exorbitant sums when they want to leave their countries but lack the “proper paperwork.”

Humans in the not-too-distant past did not need passports to leave poor prospects for hope.

Migrants face costs of all kinds. They leave behind their families, friends, and place in the world. They are willing to bear those costs because they think the benefits of their new “home” to be worthwhile.

pportThe cost of moving has increased as passport (and visa) requirements have tightened over the past century. During World War I, refugees could flee violence for safer places. During the 1920s and later, they were trapped behind bureaucratic walls that could not be breeched without the right papers.

The entire plot of the 1942 movie, Casablanca, depends on the heroes getting the right visa, but the movie’s happy ending was denied to the millions of refugees and political prisoners (most famously, the Jews) who died (or were murdered) through government action or neglect. The situation is not much different today for the people who want to flee cruel and deadly places (North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, etc.) but lack “papers.”

Some people might think that the suffering of would-be migrants is a price worth paying to protect their own homes from being overrun and pockets emptied to help refugees, but those people (usually members of the “lucky sperm club” born with the right papers) miss the obvious middle option of allowing migration without the gold-plated protections they expect themselves. Most migrants are less interested in handouts than in safety and the opportunity to work and contribute to their adoptive communities.

Passports will become more valuable in a climate-changed world as disruptions (failed crops, miserable weather, sinking cities, violence, etc.) increase the value of moving. Refugees — human and animal — will seek to cross borders as their domestic prospects deteriorate. Some of these refugees will have more money (those fleeing record temperatures in the Persian Gulf or abandoning beachfront houses on tropical islands), but most refugees will be the poor who cannot feed or protect themselves.

The increased importance of passports will mean that those with “good passports” will be very interested in ensuring their identity is protected. People with “bad passports,” on the other hand, will be willing to pay more to get forged passports (or obtain real passports via fraud). Those forces will complement each other in driving governments to increase the security of their passports.

A few months ago, I was extremely upset when I opened the washing machine to find my passport. We were leaving to South America in a week, and there was no time to get a replacement, so I took a chance. Luckily, the damage was too small to affect the passport’s function, but I really thought a lot about how vulnerable I was without that document to “protect my rights.” No border guard, soldier or police officer is interested in my charm, blog or business card. The only thing that stood between me and deportation was a 32-page booklet.

Passport controls and identity are going to get very sophisticated, very quickly if even half the predictions of climate change come to pass (let alone the chaos that leaders create on their own!). To me, that implies that we are going to replace passports with technology that’s harder to forge or lose, such as implanted RFC chips, tattoos (yes, I’m saying it), DNA-registration, and other technologies that can pass through the wash without losing their validity.

Is this inevitable? Not exactly. Passports were put into widespread use over 100 years ago at the behest of governments that wanted to control who went where. The balance of costs and benefits has kept that system in place, but that balance could tip entirely over if enough pressure is applied. The arrival of numerous “undocumented aliens” in the US and EU (and China’s breaking documentation system) suggests that controls are fragile, just as the rise of digital currencies (and continuing attraction of gold) has shown people’s mistrust of government motives.

In the future, we may all need to scan ourselves to the authorities on a daily basis, to prove that we have the right to be where we are — or we may just need to find ways to live among a variety of people.

Will we value humans or paperwork? If your answer depends on what passport you’re holding right now, then I suggest you imagine how you’d answer that passport was gone.


dz_smDavid Zetland is an assistant professor at Leiden University College, where he teaches various classes on economics. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. He blogs on water, economics and politics at aguanomics.com, has two books (The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity and Living with Water Scarcity), gives many talks to public, professional and academic audiences, and writes for popular and academic outlets. David lives in Amsterdam.

Manhattan Pirates

Luna Lovewell’s future still benefits from seaborne trade.

From nearby balconies, the men manning the guns cheered as The Stork came sailing down 7th Avenue loaded with new cargo. Children scrambled across the makeshift bridges and ropeways to follow the boat heading towards the docks over what used to be Washington Square Park. Captain Andrews was one of the few men old enough to remember what it had looked like before the floods. The lively mix of tourists, intoxicated college students, and wealthy yuppies. The blaring taxi horns, live music, and just the general hustle and bustle of life in New York city. Now it was silent except for the waves lapping against crumbling buildings and the call of gulls from overhead.

As soon as the ship was tied up, the forlorn docks sprang to life. Men who’d been desperate for work seemed to just materialize out of thin air until there was a whole horde of them helping to unload each and every box. There had once been a pretty stable trade in salvaged goods around here, but the slowly dying industry had fallen from its last leg over the past year or so. The most easily accessible parts of the city had been pretty much picked clean of everything useful, and the new cities on dry land had begun to manufacture their own goods again. So traders with no goods and no market were forced to find a new career in piracy.

“Where’d you go?” One of the boys called. Captain Andrews recognized the young Robinson boy; that face full of freckles was unmistakeable. “You go to the Mississippi Bay?” Though it was a long trip from New York, it was a popular destination for the other crews due to the booming trade between the Appalachian and Rocky cities. Trade ships were plentiful, but so were naval ships ready to blow pirates out of the water.

Andrews shook his head and grinned. “East, my boy! The settlements in the Pyrenees are producing like you wouldn’t believe!”

“Any fruit?” called out a woman from the docks. “Citrus?” A whole chorus of other women clustered around, eager to also hear the answer. They’d managed to start growing beans and a few other crops on some of the skyscraper roofs, but anything with a decent amount of Vitamin C refused to grow here. Scurvy affected nearly every family.

“Sorry, no citrus. But lots of other foodstuffs, including some fresh meat!” That got a rousing cheer from the men scrambling across the docks with heavy boxes; livestock wasn’t a common sight in NYC nowadays, and as a former fishing vessel, The Stork was one of the few ships left in the city with a refrigerated cargo hold.

Captain Andrews turned to his first mate. “Make sure it all gets accounted for,” he said. What kind of pirate would he be if the dock crew was able to steal the same goods that he’d already stolen. “And get it to market as soon as possible. I’m going home.”

“Ay, sir.” He would have liked to return to his wife too, but that’s the benefit of being captain and not first mate.

Captain Andrews made his way toward Midtown, through the markets of vendors all selling the same rusted appliances and useless knick-knacks. He stopped to chat a few times, having gotten to know most of the city’s merchants through various dealings over the years. But they lost interest in the conversation with him when they learned that the first mate would be distributing the cargo. Just as well; he had better things to do than talk to them.

Finally Captain Andrews arrived home. After nearly 2 months at sea, he was eager to stretch his legs and bolted up the concrete stairs toward the apartment. It was a posh penthouse that overlooked the flat square of water that used to be Central Park. Someone very wealthy had once owned this place, and they’d no doubt evacuated to their second home in Vail or Gstaad or some other mountain destination when the floods came. But it served well for Captain Andrews and his family.

His wife rushed to put her arms around his neck, and his daughter came toddling into the atrium shortly after. He scooped the little girl up in a hug and held them both tight. “I’ve missed you both so much.” And from his pocket, he withdrew the prize that he’d hidden even from his own crew. A perfect, fat, juicy orange that he’d taken off of the captain of the ship they’d robbed off the coast of what used to be France. Just the smell of it had nearly driven Captain Andrews mad on the way back across the Atlantic, but it was totally worth it to see both of their faces light up. “This is for you.”


Luna Lovewell (aka W.P. Kimball) writes often on reddit/writingprompts, where this piece originally appeared. She has published a collection of her stories as [Prompt Me].

Last man in England

Sarah Dixon writes of a man’s desire for home.

‘Confirmation from the PharmaCo Court today, that judges have not yet made a determination in the case of Mr Ronald Balcock, the so called ‘last man in England’. A decision is expected before close of business today as to whether Mr Balcock will be forcibly evacuated, or allowed to remain to face the incoming tide.’

Ty sighed. His parents were glued to the viewscreen, like all the older generation. He didn’t get it. Why were they still so obsessed with what happened on Old Earth? They should move on, look to the future. That’s why they’d left, after all: So there was a future.

The tablet computer in his lap showed the same footage as the viewscreen on two thirds of its display, the remaining third showed thumbnails of related vids with more information. He clicked on the top one, turning up the volume so he could hear the narration over the noise of the room.

‘The PharmaCo Fleet left Old Earth on June 30th, 2045, transporting colonists from the polluted and dangerous conditions of their home world and out, to create a better life. When National and Global Government failed, the Corporations stepped in, funding the development of space craft and the colonisation of new planet-’

Ty rolled his eyes. Yes, he’d heard all that before. He glanced up and checked the room, making sure his Grandparents hadn’t heard the voice over. The last thing he needed was his Grandad going off on one about how the Corporations had them over a barrel; how they were all slaves now, bought and sold. His Dad would only get angry, shouting about how freedom didn’t mean a thing if you were dead.

Ty didn’t get why they all got so upset about Old Earth. He knew it had been a nice place once, he’d seen Vids of the animals and their habitats. He especially liked Tigers and Lions, and all the other big cats. The thing was though, Old Earth wasn’t like that anymore. There wasn’t even much left of it now, the water levels were so high. Grandad had come from England, and now there was barely enough of that left for one man to live on. Ty tapped the screen to start the next Vid.

‘Who is Ronald Balcock, and why won’t he leave?’ a slick woman presenter said, as a picture of the old man who was the cause of all the fuss appeared on the screen.

Ty thought he looked quite nice, not a stubborn old fool like his Mum always called him. The presenter was talking about how Balcock came from a family of farmers who had always lived in the same place. That he felt a tie to the land. Fidgeting, Ty looked back up to the main screen, just in case anything had changed.

It hadn’t. The cameras still showed a derelict looking farm house on the top of a hill, surrounded on all sides by water. There were evac copters circling, waiting on the order to take the man from his property. Ty huffed, sending a strand of hair puffing away from his face. Boring.

On his personal screen, the presenter was talking over some of the reasons people had given in the past for staying on Old Earth. There were a few groups who had been given permission to stay. Lunatics, Dad called them. Grandad agreed with him for some, the ones who were staying because they thought it was God’s will, but not for others. The ones who agreed with him that colony life was nothing but slavery.

Ty didn’t think it was slavery. They had a nice life here, a good home and plenty of food. He went to school, and he had a job all lined up for when he left too. He was contracted to work for the company, so were his kids if they didn’t pay off the debt the family owed for being brought here. What was wrong with that though? They wouldn’t have got here without the help from the Corporations!

The population of Old Earth was now just a few thousand people. Cranks and crazies, clinging on to the past in the high places, his Mum said. She always sounded sad about it, though.

A noise alerted Ty to a change on the main screen, and he tapped pause on his own device to give it his full attention. One of the evac copters had flown down and landed outside of Balcock’s house. The old man came out of his front door, waving his arm in a clear gesture that he wanted them to leave but the uniformed officers of Corporate Enforcement didn’t take the hint.

The screen cleared without warning, the camera view changed to a first person perspective; the camera of the officer approaching the house. The wind sounded fierce through his microphone, and Ty leaned forward on his seat as he got a close up view of the terrible conditions of Old Earth.

‘Get away! Leave me alone!’ Balcock was shouting.

‘Mr Balcock, The PharmaCo Court has instructed me to ask you a series of questions. Your answers will be live broadcast to the court and serve as your testimony where it will be used to determine whether you may remain on their property.’

‘It’s not their property!’ Balcock argued. ‘It’s mine, my families! Always has been.’

The officer ignored him and carried on, ‘Mr Balcock, do you believe that it is the plan of a higher power that you remain here?’

‘No!’

‘Mr Balcock, do you believe that humanity is a contagion that should be confined to earth?’

‘No!’

‘Mr Balcock, are you a member of any group which has been granted legal permission to remain on Old Earth?’

‘No!’

‘Mr Balcock, do you identify yourself with the group FirstEarth?’

Ty pricked up his ears at that question. FirstEarth were a group of terrorists, they carried out attacks in the colonies because they were so angry about the Corporations helping people get away.

‘No, you bloody idiot! Why don’t you stop asking questions and just…go away?’

‘Mr Balcock, do you have any comments for the court to support your decision to remain here in the light of the clear and present danger to your life by the rising water levels and atmospheric pollution?’

The old man switched in a moment from being angry and aggressive to a slump shouldered rag doll.

‘Fights gone out of him,’ Grandma said quietly.

The whole family fell silent, all other screens muted as they watched the drama unfolding on the main viewscreen.

‘This is my home,’ Balcock said, his voice breaking. ‘A man should have the right to remain in his home, to die there if he wants to. You don’t have a right to just take me away from the place I love. My heart’s here.’

‘Your heart?’ the officer asked, puzzled.

‘My whole life, my memories…’ tears formed in the old man’s eyes, his voice breaking. ‘My wife. My wife is buried in the back garden. Please…please don’t make me leave her. I just want to stay here. I’m not bothering anyone.’

Ty watched, frozen, as the old man fell to his knees and sobbed. He’d never seen a grown up cry like that before. It made him feel uneasy. He looked around the room for comfort from his family, and saw tears were rolling down all their cheeks too.

‘I think that concludes Mr Balcock’s testimony,’ the officer snapped, and the camera cut back to the long view. The old man appeared tiny, knelt before the large man in his bulky uniform.

‘And now we wait for the Court’s decision,’ the news presenter said smoothly. ‘Balcock has received invitations from all of the groups legally allowed to remain on Old Earth but he has refused them all. He has made no statement as to why, but we presume it is because of this man’s extraordinary attachment to his native land.’

Silence fell then, only the whirring noise of the evac copters as they continued to circle the building. Ty wriggled over on the sofa to sit closer to his Mum who wrapped an arm around him and pulled him in tight.

‘And the Court’s decision is in! Mr Balcock will be forcibly evacuated from his property for his own safety.’

His Grandparents exploded into angry words, his Father immediately arguing with them. They all spoke at once so Ty couldn’t make out what was being said, but in any case, his attention was focused on the screen.

The Corporate Enforcement Officer seemed to be speaking to Mr Balcock, but the old man was still knelt down and shaking his head. The Officer pulled a weapon from its holster at his waist, checked a setting and then leveled it at the old man. He said something else, and Ty wondered why they weren’t playing the audio this time. Then there was a dull, popping noise and the old man slumped to the ground.

Immediately the officer moved towards him, checking his pulse and then signalling to the copter. More officers came out with a stretcher, loading Balcock onto it and carrying him back towards their craft.

‘Well, that’s it then,’ said Grandpa. His voice was cracked; his cheeks damp with tears. ‘Last man in England, and he’s gone.’

‘God bless him,’ muttered Grandma.

Ty rested his head against his mother and watched, hearing her let out her own sad sigh. She kissed him on the top of the head and gave him a squeeze as she whispered, ‘Last man in England…’


DixonSarah Dixon is a prolific writer of short stories, usually Science Fiction or Fantasy but always with a hint of wonder. After spending her life wanting to write, but never reaching her own lofty standards she read the advice ‘Finish first, edit later’ and finally made it to the end of a chapter. She hasn’t stopped since. A wife and mother of two, it was the desire to write stories that challenged the lure of video games that led her to write her first children’s novel. Alfie Slider vs the Shape Shifter is an action adventure for 9-12-year-olds, coming late 2016 from SilverWood books. When not writing, Sarah enjoys working with schools to engage children with creative writing including delivering her workshop about social commentary in Sci-Fi titled ‘How Aliens Changed the World.’

Looking back on the Century of Division

Joe Cotton imagines how a studious alien race might look back on human history (written in the style of Doris Lessing’s novel “Shikasta”).

STUDY NOTES: On the global crisis of climate and the Shikastan young (from History of Shikasta vol 3016: “The Century of Division”)

I want to encourage a healthy amount of scepticism in you, dear student, with regard to the designation of the 21st Century as the “Century of Division”, for you might rightly note that the great majority of Shikastan history was taken up by warring and conflict. Many argue (Taufiq among them) that it was in the Shikastans very nature to be hostile and aggressive, particularly towards those outside of their interactive group. Hence one could say the whole history of Shikasta was one of division! But I want to draw your attention to a more nuanced understanding of this designation by the Archivists. Shikastans were a fickle sort and an enemy of one decade could become the strongest of allies in the next. These shifting allegiances suggested that divisions could always be overcome – if only by the creation of another division in the form of a new common enemy. The global crisis of climate, however, was unique in that rather than being resolvable through new division, what was required was a unification on a scale unprecedented in Shikastan history. Yet as you know, rather than uniting in the spirit of international solidarity (which you may know as Envoy Johor’s Sense-of-We Feeling), the Shikastans turned inwards to their own national groups, reinforced their borders, and forsook the rest of their kind. Consider the prophetic insights provided by Johor regarding the younger generation at the time:

…the young are, in their hordes, their gangs, their groups, their cults, their political parties, their sects, shouting slogans, infinitely divided, antagonistic to each other, always in the right, jostling for command. There they are – the future, and it is self-condemned” (Lessing 1981, 221).

Johor’s description of the Shikastan young is key to understanding the “Century of Division”. We can roughly categorise the young into two groups; apathetics and radicals, whereby the former were so disillusioned and lethargic as to renounce politics altogether, and the latter were effectively zealots of a particular ideology. Both groups, either through pessimism or narrow-mindedness, were quite unable to entertain the possibility that political divisions could ever be overcome. As the century progressed the radicals waged their ideological war, at first with words that increasingly took a parochial and nativist tone. Meanwhile the apathetics stood by – you may be familiar with the Shikastan saying that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [wo]men to do nothing” – the apathetics were, in their entirety, guilty of this. As the vitriol intensified, so international divisions between populations became insurmountable, and hateful words led to hateful deeds. It was this division that precluded an international resolution to the global crisis of climate, which in turn led the Shikastans to their end in the following Century of Extinction. Johor observed the sorry occasion:

The armies covered Shikasta. Meanwhile, the epidemics spread, among people, and among what was left of the animal population, among plant life. Meanwhile, the millions began to dwindle under the assault of famine. Meanwhile, the waters and the air filled with poisons and miasmas, and there was no place anywhere that was safe. Meanwhile, all kinds of imbalances created by their own manic hubris, caused every sort of natural disaster (Lessing 1981, 296).

STUDY POINT: You should notice that in both excepts, Johor describes the Shikastans’ problems as self-inflicted: they were “self-condemned…by their own manic hubris”. Reflect on this observation with reference to the “Century of Destruction” (characterised by the two intensive periods of global conflict), the “Century of Division” (characterised by the collapse of international structures) and the “Century of Extinction” (characterised by the effects of the Global Crisis of Climate). Remember: Following the extinction of the Shikastan population and the rebalancing of natural cycles, the colonisation of Shikasta shall begin anew. Be sure to emphasise lessons from Shikastan history that can inform future policies, so that previous mistakes can be learned from and our colonial effort might be more successful the second time around.


CottonJoe Cotton is a recent graduate of Leiden University College The Hague, at which he followed a Liberal Arts and Science programme and focused on politics and sustainability. Joe is further interested in philosophy, social justice, community engagement, education and climate change. At the moment, he is taking a gap year to consider graduate jobs and master’s programmes, as well as spend some time traveling. If you enjoyed the piece, please do get in contact.