A man tries to fix his house's electric meter after heavy rains in Jatinegara in Jakarta, January 2, 2020. Photo: Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency via AFP Forum

Jakarta’s New Year floods, a natural disaster which claimed 66 lives and displaced over 60,000, were largely unavoidable after a 30-hour deluge that dumped 20 times more rain on the Indonesian capital than on an average day.

Jakarta-based soil scientist David Parry says no drainage system in the world could have coped with the unexpected downpour, but that hasn’t stopped Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan from getting it in the neck from his army of critics for paring back the city’s flood mitigation budget.

The flood also reopened old political wounds, with a war of words breaking out between Baswedan, a former education minister and 2024 presidential hopeful, and Public Works Minister Basuki Hadimuljono, a favorite of President Joko Widodo and one of the few ministers retained from the re-elected president’s previous Cabinet.

Hadimuljono has been critical of Baswedan for not continuing the innovative work of Basuki Purnama, his Christian-Chinese predecessor who was brought down in the 2017 gubernatorial election by a tenuous blasphemy charge that sparked massive demonstrations and eventually earned him two years in jail.

Purnama was the president-to-be’s deputy and close ally when he served as Jakarta governor between 2012 and 2014, during which the pair kickstarted the mass rail transit (MRT) and light rail (LRT) systems and other infrastructure ventures that have since transformed the metropolis.

Despite his popularity, even among the conservative Muslims who voted against him, Purnama earned the particular ire of 34,000 urban poor by clearing them out of shanty settlements along the city’s riverbanks, one of the key measures he introduced during his three years as Widodo’s successor.

Central to that move was widening and dredging a 17-kilometer stretch of the rubbish-strewn Cilawung River, the largest of the 13 waterways crossing Jakarta, and driving concrete sheet piling into its banks. Slum dwellers, who had lived there for decades, were forcibly evicted to make way for a riverside access road.

Governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan (C) in a February 19, 2019 file photo. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo

During the 2017 election campaign, Baswsedan played on their hostility towards Purnama, signing pledges with the Jakarta Urban Poor Network and other community groups in which he pledged to improve the management of riverside slums rather than demolishing them.

As promised, Baswedan killed the Cilawang project. But for all the criticism that has piled up on him since the recent floods, much of it from diehard Purnama supporters, Parry says it is unfair to blame that alone on the New Year calamity.

No-one, it seems, saw it coming.The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency could only point to the onset of the annual monsoon season, which will last for at least another three months, and what they said was an inordinate amount of water vapor in the air at the time.

Parry personally measured 500 millimeters (19.6 inches) of rain in south Jakarta over a 30-hour period, just less than the 541mm recorded for the entire month of February 2007, when 60% of the capital was inundated, killing 70 people and forcing 365,000 from their homes.

Back then, it took a week or more for Jakarta to recover. This time, the city was largely back to normal within 24 hours, a testament to the rapid strides being made in dealing with annual flood events, even if ever-greater expanses of concrete and asphalt have exacerbated the run-off.

Chief among those measures has been the completion of a tunnel linking the Cilawang River with the East Jakarta Flood Canal. But

Parry also points to real improvements in upstream early warning systems and social media’s role in information dissemination in cushioning the impact on residents in flood-prone areas.

A man walks amid heavy flooding in Jakarta, January 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Donal Husni/NurPhoto

Amid all the thunderclaps there was other good news, too. While suburban rail services were disrupted, the underground section of the new MRT experienced none of the problems that shocked Singapore’s citizenry in October 2017 when floodwaters invaded a stretch of tunnel on its north-south MRT line.

Parry says flood mitigation has steadily evolved since the early 2000s, but he credits the charismatic Purnama with making a major difference by encouraging Jakarta’s five mayoralties to take a larger measure of individual responsibility in protecting the capital’s 10 million-strong population.

As it is, Purnama has emerged from prison to become the new president commissioner of the state-run Pertamina oil company, a role that will keep him out of the public firing line but will still allow him to oversee a firm that has been a notorious cash cow for politicians and vested interest groups.

Critics say Baswedan’s problem is that he has none of Purnama’s charisma and energy, and sometimes seems out of his depth in managing the capital. That in itself raises serious questions about his political future, particularly after critics on Jakarta’s city council accused him of lacking in budget transparency.

The governor’s integrity hasn’t been questioned, but he was left red-faced and demanding answers recently when it was revealed that his administration had allocated 82.8 billion rupiah (US$5.9 million) for multi-purpose glue, part of a 1.6 trillion rupiah ($113 million) budget for stationary alone.

Experts are now urging an end to the political bickering and more attention on the real causes of the recurring floods, mostly the haphazard development in watershed areas and continued groundwater extraction in a rapidly growing city where only half of the populace has access to piped water.

Hydrologists say Jakarta’s mission must be to work with other local governments to achieve zero run-off in the upland areas around Bogor, south of the capital. Key to its success, they say, is the installation of 1.8 million vertical drainage units, compared to the 2,000 currently in operation.

A mother and child in a flooded area of Jakarta on January 2nd, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Aditya Irawan

Long term, much depends on whether the central government signs off on the long-planned $37 billion National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) scheme, designed to enhance flood protection for the northern part of the city which is sinking by six centimeters a year.

The brainchild of Dutch engineers, the mega-project involves building a 32-kilometer seawall across Jakarta Bay, inside of which will be 17 artificial islands and a series of lagoons to take the outflow from the rivers draining the city; that will be converted into a potable water supply to be pumped back into a rehabilitated reticulation network.

Critics, including Purnama himself, have questioned its viability, seeing it not as a way to help pay for the seawall — as inter-connected commercial development does with many major transport undertakings — but as a potential source of big-ticket corruption that will line the pockets of Jakarta’s elite.

Baswedan and his engineers are not keen on it either, saying the conditions in Jakarta Bay are different from those of southeast South Korea’s 33-km Saemangeum Seawall on which the concept is based. He fears it could make Jakarta prone to even more flooding because of land subsidence and higher tides.

But the New Year deluge, with the promise of wetter rainy seasons ahead, may well convince the Widodo government to accelerate the project, mindful of the fact that even if the capital is moved to Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, Jakarta must still survive as the country’s biggest metropolis and main commercial and financial hub.

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