JAKARTA, Indonesia — One of the first things I’m learning as a foreigner visiting this city for the first time is to watch where I step. On many major streets, sidewalks are flanked by roaring, chaotic traffic one side and open stormwater ditches on the other. Busy streets are to be expected in a city of 10 million – pedestrian pitfalls measuring three feet across are a little more unusual.
I joked to my colleague, GroundTruth photographer Muhammad Fadli, that I pity the poor Pokémon Go player who falls into a hole chasing Pikachu, but he told me people have actually drowned after severe floods swept them down canals and storm drains.
Like traffic, flooding in Jakarta is both epic and utterly familiar. I’m here because Jakarta is where climate change adaptation is really visible. For as long as it’s been inhabited, this natural floodplain on the Java Sea has defied civil engineers who tried to keep it dry. Archaeologists have discovered stone inscriptions from the 5th century describing river diversions and flood control projects that sound similar to what’s underway today. The key difference now is global warming, which means this centuries-long search for a solution to Jakarta’s flooding problem is more urgent than it’s ever been.
Forty percent of Jakarta is below sea level. The northern areas of the city get flooded by seawater when the wind and high tide conspire. The rest gets flooded by rain running down from the mountains in the south, which overwhelms the 13 channels and rivers that crisscross the city. And as sea levels rise, Jakarta is sinking at an even faster rate – 4 inches on average per year, and nearly a foot in some areas.
Those curbside canals I’m learning to step over are one of the relics of Dutch urban planning from centuries of colonial rule, when Jakarta was called Batavia. But despite their world-renowned expertise in living with water, the Dutch were never able to tame Jakarta’s floods by engineering it in the image of Amsterdam. The Dutch department of public works, Burgerlijke Openbaare Werken, abbreviated BOW, was mockingly referred to as “Batavia Onder Water.”
In the early 20th century, an engineer named Hendrik van Breen laid out a master plan to solve the flooding problem, which included splitting the city’s main river, the Ciliwung, into two main canals that would run around the old city center. The west flood canal was built in 1919, but the east canal is still under construction.
Since then, Jakarta’s sprawling urban development has eaten up whatever time the van Breen plan bought. Its population more than quadrupled between 1975 and 1995. During that time it courted international businesses with scattered forests of skyscrapers and thickets of highways that give water nowhere to go but into the already swollen rivers and canals. Overpopulation has even inspired numerous proposals over the years to move the capital away from Jakarta, to another city that isn’t soaked through with environmental problems.
Variations of that idea still have their boosters. While reporting this week, I’ve heard a few times that Indonesia should take the focus off its biggest city and encourage development elsewhere.
“So many people come to Jakarta because it is the economic center of Indonesia,” said Wahyu Mulyana, the executive director of the Urban and Regional Development Institute. “Climate change should also be considered in the urban development strategy, to reduce the burden of a coastal city like Jakarta with the distribution of new urban centers outside Jakarta.”
Forced migration is probably ill-advised, and it has a bad connotation in Indonesia specifically. Nonetheless I heard a similar proposal from Ahmad “Puput” Safrudin, the executive director of the local environmental group KPBB.
“Look at the history,” he said. “Rather than constructing a giant seawall, it’s better the budget be allocated to make new centers of development in other areas.”
It may be too late for that. Instead of pulling back development, the current governments of Jakarta and Indonesia have floated a plan to reclaim new land in Jakarta Bay, building a giant seawall and paying for it by leasing man-made islands to wealthy developers. To solve the freshwater flooding problem, they’re dredging and widening the river system, and adding concrete barriers to the riverbanks that snake through town.
Both projects involve evicting perhaps hundreds of thousands of people who live in informal settlements along the water, often with no more than one week’s notice. That process has sparked protests, lawsuits and corruption investigations that throw the stakes of climate change adaptation into sharp relief.
GroundTruth is in Jakarta to follow up on all of that, and we’ll have much more to report soon. But after a week walking through the informal Jakarta villages known as kampung and talking to residents facing these problems, I’m beginning to wonder what will ultimately change the city more: rising seas and frequent floods, or its latest tidal wave of evictions.