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The Inequality of Jakarta’s Floods

Jakarta has once again been hit by torrential rains, inundating houses in low-lying areas of the city and forcing thousands of residents into emergency shelters. The heavy downpours that began on Monday, Feb. 24 resulted in the fourth major flood that Indonesia’s capital city has experienced this year. 

Over the past two months, upwards of 70 people have lost their lives to the floods in Jakarta, and around 400,000 people have fled their homes. While the entire city has felt these impacts and the various inconveniences of flooding, natural disasters in Jakarta have disproportionately victimized low-income residents for years. Jakarta, a coastal city with roughly 40 percent of its land below sea level, is safe only for those who can afford to live in the central business district or elite residential enclaves. For everyone else settled in coastal areas, exposure to sea-level rises and clogged drainage systems poses a direct threat to their lives. 

Indonesia has the sixth greatest wealth inequality in the world, and the aftermath of environmental disasters captures the severity of this problem. Of the many areas affected, less-developed districts were hit the worst by recent floods, partially because there is a lack of reliable infrastructure and electricity in these places. Also contributing to the vulnerability of poorer neighborhoods are the affluent businesses in Jakarta. When skyscrapers and fancy apartment complexes are built several feet higher than street level, floodwater flows down to areas that lack the infrastructure to drain it. 

Further, poorer communities in Jakarta grapple with the issue of their homes sinking. As wealthy communities pump groundwater, they cause subsidence in low-lying areas where families can not easily access clean water to begin with. Whenever such areas experience flooding, floodwater and wastewater contaminate piped and groundwater supplies. The result is that Jakarta’s poorest residents experience higher exposure to flooding and poorer quality water, which ultimately keeps them in cycles of poverty

The main difficulty most low-income citizens face after a flood is returning to destroyed homes and businesses. Recovery takes time and money, and the Jakartan government does little to help residents get back on their feet. For people who live on a pay-by-pay basis, a few weeks away from work leave them in dire financial circumstances. And even when residents receive humanitarian aid from Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency or non-governmental organizations, they can anticipate to again be hit with flooding. For too many in Jakarta, the horrors of flooding are cyclical and never-ending.

But despite the current state of unequal housing and access to utility in Jakarta, low-income residents are often left behind in political discussions concerning the development of the city. Indonesia’s embrace of urbanization has put economic development in the hands of private interests, which have prioritized the richest citizens and corporations. In fact, the Jakartan government has been so uninvolved in the development of its city that Jakarta’s current character has been shaped almost entirely by corporate interests. As the needs of citizens are continually disregarded in city planning, inequality deepens and wealth segregation increases. In Jakarta, a lack of government enforcement for buildings and land-use has worsened the flooding crisis the city now faces. 

However, after the deadly floods that hit Jakarta in early January passed, hundreds of residents filed class-action lawsuits against city governor Anies Baswedan for negligence. After years of being denied representation, Jakarta’s residents seek to hold authorities responsible for poor city construction and their inaction during the flood. Although the lawsuits have been sidelined due to additional flooding difficulties, the victims of the floods have support from climate groups and the international community. As Alvon Krunia Palma at the Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation told Reuters: “People have been affected tremendously. They deserve compensation and assurance from the government that their concerns are being addressed.” 

By 2045, Jakarta will no longer be Indonesia’s capital. Because of overcrowding, sinking and pollution problems, the capital city will be moved to the sparsely populated island of Borneo. While ambitious city designs are already underway, the government may be excluding low-income residents from the promise of a better future. Since the 2007 Jakarta flood that claimed the lives of 80 people, affluent residents began paying their way into other areas, whether it be inner-city districts or a different island altogether. This migration will occur when Borneo becomes the capital, and low-income residents will be left behind in an environmentally destroyed city. 

It is only a matter of time before Jakarta experiences another flood. When it happens, we can expect the same stories of low-income residents grieving over their lost homes, while the city’s skyscrapers quickly relight and get back to work. Unless the Indonesian government takes action now to help those impacted the greatest by flooding, it will all happen again. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Cynthia Sutanto is a high school senior from Corpus Christi, Texas. Her areas of interest include global affairs, intersectional feminism, and political theory. In her free time, she enjoys thrift shopping and drinking too much iced coffee.

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