Jakarta floods renew calls for stronger environmental protection

Environmental activists in Indonesia have urged the government to strengthen regulations to protect the environment following the recent massive flooding that hit the country’s capital and surrounding areas.

jakarta slums flood
A family seeks shelter from floods in Jakarta's slums area in Kapuk Muara, Indonesia. Image: bungasirait, CC BY-SA 2.0

The recent deadly flooding in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta and nearby cities has renewed calls from activists for the government to strengthen environmental protection and boost efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Record-breaking rainfall across Southeast Asia’s largest metropolitan area on New Year’s Day caused massive flooding and landslides in much of Jakarta and its satellite cities. Authorities attributed the disaster to the volume of the water and years of environmental degradation that have silted up rivers and reduced their capacity to absorb runoff.

While flooding is an annual event in the region around this time of year, this year’s is one of the deadliest in recent years, with nearly 70 people killed, 35,000 forced to leave their homes, and more than half a million more affected. Most of the evacuees have returned to their homes as of Jan. 7.

Environmental activists say the disaster should be a strong wake-up call for the Indonesian government to strengthen regulations that protect the ecosystem and beef up efforts to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate crisis.

“The awareness [of climate crisis] must be translated into correcting the fundamental paradigm and goals of our economic policies which have failed us [and helped] create ecological disaster with massive losses,” Khalisah Khalid, the policy coordinator at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), told Mongabay Indonesia.

She cited President Joko Widodo’s plans to trim regulations and permits pertaining to environmental protection, such as impact analyses and building permits, to attract foreign investment in an effort to boost the country’s sluggish economic growth.

“The people must also start being critical of development plans or projects that threaten their living space,” Khalisah said.

Let’s not make huge profit at the cost of huge loss of lives.

Doni Monardo, chief, National Disaster Mitigation Agency

In Banten, a province on the western outskirts of Jakarta, abandoned mining pits collapsed under the heavy rain, triggering landslides that claimed several lives, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB). The site was reportedly operated by state-owned miner Aneka Tambang inside an ostensibly protected area, Gunung Halimun Salak National Park.

“I was asked by the president, ‘What was the main cause [for the floods and landslides]?’ The first is land-use change: from forest area, especially conservation area, to plantation, agriculture and mining,” Doni Monardo, the BNPB, told reporters on Jan. 4.

Doni said the increasing severity of rains and floods should be a warning for regional governments and businesses to ensure ecological balance in their activities.

“Let’s not make huge profit at the cost of huge loss of lives,” he said.

In Jakarta itself, the city administration is bracing for a class-action lawsuit that lawyers and residents impacted by the flooding say they plan to bring to court. The group, calling itself the Jakarta Flood Victims Advocacy Team, accuses the city government of negligence and incompetence in both preventing and dealing with the flood.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has come under mounting criticism for cutting the city’s flood mitigation budget every year since he took office in 2017. The budget was reduced to 1.48 trillion rupiah ($107 million) for 2020, down 26 per cent from the 2018 figure. Flood mitigation is a key adaptation strategy to the impacts of rising sea levels as a result of climate change for coastal cities such as Jakarta.

Anies has also been slammed over revelations that the 2020 flood mitigation budget was cut largely to fund an upcoming Formula E auto racing event. The city has budgeted 1.6 trillion rupiah ($115 million) for the electric car race, which Anies pitched last year as an effort to boost environmental awareness.

“The recent massive flooding happened in part due to the inability and negligence of Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan in preventing and handling the floods which have claimed many lives and caused massive material loss,” said Alvon Kurnia Palma, a lawyer representing the flood victims’ group.

If it goes to court, this will be the second-class action lawsuit filed against the Jakarta administration over allegations of inadequate handling of disasters. In 2007, following another deadly flood that killed more than 50 people, a group of flood victims also took the city to court, but lost their lawsuit.

Indonesia’s meteorological agency, known as the BMKG, has forecast heavy rains and strong winds to continue into mid-February. The government has been carrying out cloud seeding — spraying salt onto rainclouds in a bid to trigger rainfall — to break up clouds before they reach Jakarta. The practice is often used by authorities to induce rainfall over forest fires during the dry season.

The BMKG says it anticipates the cloud seeding may reduce subsequent rainfall volume over the Greater Jakarta area by 30 percent.

Another factor for the scale of the flooding is that Jakarta is sinking at a record rate as a result of groundwater extraction. As such, rainwater tends to stagnate in the city rather than wash out to sea quickly.

Flooding is one of the main reasons President Widodo wants to relocate the capital to the island of Borneo in the next few years. But some of the same problems dogging Jakarta may appear at the new site, which has experienced heavy deforestation for plantations and mines. The BMKG says the same extreme weather slamming Jakarta is also playing out in Borneo and Sulawesi islands.

Indonesia experienced an increase in average temperatures of 1° Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit) over the past 30 years, according to BMKG. “This might seem little, but the impacts can be severe,” Dwikorita Karnawati, the head of the weather agency, told reporters on Jan. 4.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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