Jakarta’s “perennial” flooding: The lock-in of infrastructural solutions


Figure 1: Residents see the flood inundating their neighborhood in the Rawajati area, Jakarta (1/1/2020, Liputan6.com/Helmi Fithriansyah)

On New Year’s Eve, the citizens of the Indonesian capital were surprised by a flood, which has been deemed to be the worst in a decade. The flood killed 67 people and displaced 400,000 residents. According to the country’s meteorological agency (BMKG), unusually high rainfall (377 mm per day), even higher than the rainfall during the city’s historic flood in 2007 (340 mm), was the cause of this flood.

Jakarta is used to flooding, with major flooding events roughly every five years since over recent decades. The scale and impact of these various flood events have influenced by more than the rainfall: high tides, upstream activities increasing runoff, unplanned development on flood prone areas, failure of infrastructure and pumps, and land subsidence. While the drivers of the flooding are complex, policy responses have been ineffective. We mapped the history of flood-related investments made in the city for the past 400 years, highlighting a narrow lock-in to infrastructural measures. A narrative that has been prominent again in these floods.

The Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, has argued that the completion of two dams upstream the city is essential to mitigate future floods. Meanwhile, the Public Works Minister, Basuki Hadimuljono, maintains that normalisation (lining river banks with concrete) of Ciliwung River can mitigate the flood. At present, only 17 km of the 33 km long Ciliwung River has just been “normalised”, or what we prefer to call canalised. These infrastructure approaches fail to address the land subsidence crisis the city is facing, caused by overexploitation of groundwater, which is exacerbating flooding.

However, in recent years there has been a change in the narrative. Jakarta’s Governor, Anies Baswedan, has committed to halting the canalisation practice and opted for a greener, naturalisation, approach by providing room for the rivers and conserving their natural features. While this approach has been widely adopted internationally, with many benefits, in Jakarta there has been little progress since Governor Baswedan was elected two years ago.

In the meantime, while Governor Baswedan accepted responsibility for the floods in a post on Facebook, he blamed uncontrolled development in the upper reaches of Jakarta for flooding in the capital, an area that is outside his jurisdiction.

Flooding is one of the main reasons Indonesia relocating its central administrative functions from Jakarta to areas in eastern Borneo by 2024. The new location would also position the capital city in the geographical centre of the archipelago and is less vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Despite this agenda, the controversial Giant Sea Wall plan in Jakarta Bay aimed at reducing coastal flood risks is progressing. However, construction is delayed as a new concept is being evaluated by the country’s national planning.

Major flood events do open policy windows, and in Jakarta historically have enabled the government to implement policies that had been languishing and to instigate flood research. However, they were not able to introduce institutional changes. Strong positive feedback cycles have reproduced similar responses to flooding (Figure 2) as canalisation, albeit expensive, provides relatively rapid relief from flooding ideal for short political cycles.

Now is the time for Governor Baswedan to push through his plans to make room for the river. Ultimately, the success of this approach will depend on is it can be integrated into a catchment scale approach that tackles upstream management and groundwater abstraction.

Figure 2. Positive feedback of Jakarta’s flood policy. Major floods were almost always responded by infrastructural approach that gives fast yet unsustainable relief
 (Octavianti and Charles, 2018, p.1115)


Thanti Octavianti is a post-doctoral researcher in cities, water and resilience at the University of the West of England, Bristol where she investigates the socio-technical aspect of household water provisioning. She did her DPhil in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, examining the political dynamics of water security, using Jakarta’s seawall plan as a case study.

Katrina Charles is Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. She is an environmental engineer by training, who leads an interdisciplinary research team on water security. Her work addresses the challenge of providing sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for all, with a focus on risk-based approaches in developing countries to improve health outcomes for all.


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