Friends and I chose the comfort of indoors for New Year’s celebrations in Jakarta, Indonesia. The rain was light, but consistent. They were 11 Javanese workers at a Sumatran restaurant, all from a single town with residence behind the restaurant in a loft above the river. The Padang food displayed in the window had reeled me in, and after a few visits, I accepted their invitation for a New Year’s get-together.
There were more than 11 people using the space behind the restaurant, though. A rice porridge seller cooked there, as well as a few Padang rice workers from across the street. I had thought they were all in competition, but it’s hard to compete when you share equipment and space with your competitors. Their cooking equipment – and five bird cages – sat at ground level, one clumsy bump away from falling into a swift, beige river teeming with the rainwater and dirt collected from 40 kilometers south, in Bogor. In the several years that waves of Tegal workers had worked there, flooding had at most reached a girder below ground level.
I left shortly after 2020 started, and six hours later, the river had come up to the road, then more than a meter above it, then up to the necks of some residents. They moved most equipment upstairs, but lost the tables and stools they couldn’t fit. Water and electricity was still cut long after the floods receded.
Across the city, 724 power stations shut down to prevent electrocutions that had already killed at least one 16-year-old. Recovery will take time and money, but losses can’t be regained. So far, the floods have claimed 43 lives, and up to 60,000 have fled their homes. Some Jakartans and West Javans took to social media to call for emergency services after persistently high water levels left electricity and food sources cut. It didn’t seem like the city was prepared, even as it has known about the flood dangers since the founding of colonial Batavia. Two deadly floods in Jakarta occurred in recent memory; dozens happen every year around the country.
For this country impacting and impacted by the world’s ballooning carbon emissions, flooding will get worse, according to dozens of reports on the climate crisis. Rainfall on New Year’s Eve was the highest in more than 20 years, maybe even in 150 years, according to the meteorology body, BMKG. Jakarta’s plunge into the sea will do it no favors, and neither will the rest of the country’s increasing climate disasters, which will likely fuel a urban migration, as people seek apparently false promises of secure livelihoods. Jakarta’s more than 30 million people aren’t going to be picked up and moved to the new capital in Borneo, if the proposed city is even built.
Indonesia’s embrace of urbanization as economic development has allowed Jakarta to explode into a global megacity in a few decades. More than half the country’s population lives in cities, predicted to reach 70 percent by 2025. However, the growth has been largely regulated by private interests, which have prioritized the residents with the biggest pockets (whose groundwater consumption has led to the city’s sinking). Delik Hudalah, a researcher at the Institute of Technology in Bandung, found that the government has been so hands-off that the current character of the city has been shaped almost entirely by private interests.
Jakarta only seems to remember the environment when it floods, but the environment has determined the city’s construction for centuries. When the city grew, people had to pay attention to flooding. It became such a prominent segregator that a 2018 paper identified that current poorer areas are more prone to flooding because richer people could pay their way into other areas. Hence my apartment’s cheap rent. In addition to the narrowing of the city’s 13 rivers and canals and silting that has filled them with soil, shrinking green spaces and taller buildings have left people asking: Where will the water go?
The director for the Rujak Center for Urban Studies, Elisa Sutanudjaja, estimates that Jakarta’s land cover is much higher than what is allowed by law. One popular area called Kemang, for example, stipulates that building coverage should not exceed 40 percent of the area, but few buildings comply. Lack of enforcement, she says, is the source of troubles, even as permits for large buildings, for example, involve 39 laws and regulations and seven government bodies.
While the richest can seek cozy lifestyles, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, continues a tradition of blaming the poorest for causing floods by throwing trash everywhere, in addition to their land conversion. After the deadly 2007 floods in Jakarta, a report found that the poor exposed to flood-prone areas knew the risks, contrary to many assumptions, but they remained and coped in these areas because there were few other choices and they expected the government to help when necessary.
Jakarta’s governor, Anies Baswedan, accepted responsibility on behalf of the government for the floods, likely a first in Jakarta’s history. “Since he accepted responsibility, he also needs to prepare perhaps if there is class action or citizen lawsuit to follow,” Sutanudjaja said.
The city’s growth has allowed the rich to avoid disaster, but Jakarta is not alone in being shaped by private interests. Cities across Indonesia have grown with little attention to planning and zoning, allowing for sedimentation, landslides and a dearth of buffer zones. This has already led to a whole host of environmental problems before the impacts of global warming could even get started. Hundreds of thousands of residents in each city are left without stable housing and vulnerable to flooding and droughts that can strike year round. Politicians and researchers, responding to the New Year’s floods, have already blamed the conversion of land into residential or farming areas for loosening sediment in West Java and raising water levels. That happens around the country, as the country allows residents and businesses to build wherever they feel is beneficial.
It seemed strange that I could so easily find electricity and food once I could exit my apartment near my friends at the restaurant. The city relies on them more than it does on me. It was only a matter of time before social media started circulating iconically segregated images where flooding drove its wedge between incomes. Some could find refuge, but now they’re left repairing their motorbikes and kitchens, while the city’s skyscrapers, which fill up sewers and sink the city, get back to work.
And it will all happen again.
Ian Morse is a journalist based in Sulawesi, Indonesia.