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”.

Addendum (8 June 2017): “Understanding the allure of big infrastructure: Jakarta’s Great Garuda Sea Wall Project

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