Jakarta floods: Developers' folly at fault

JAKARTA - Reporting on a large earthquake in Aceh nine months ago, I was struck by a Twitter post by university rector Anies Baswedan.

It is not earthquakes that kill people, but buildings that do, he wrote.

Thursday’s severe flooding that crippled Jakarta made me think the same could be said of most natural disasters, which many seem to accept as a given.

It was not the rains that made the floods in Jakarta so bad – but reckless over-development without regard for proper spatial planning.

As one of Indonesia’s most astute political observers, Mr Yudi Latif, said on Thursday: “Rain has always been a blessing in many civilisations. But today, when it becomes a disaster, something’s wrong with our approach to development, which disregards our environment.”

Sooner or later, the new shopping malls and apartment buildings that cropped up around and lined Jakarta’s main thoroughfares were bound to create more trouble than just traffic snarls that many who live in this city of 10 million – that swells to some 17 million during the day - have become resigned to.

Already, Jakarta’s city limits at 641 sq km means its density is twice – thrice during the day – that of Singapore.

And planners have let the motor vehicle population grow to a stage where observers predict total gridlock by 2014 if brutal measures to curb car use are not adopted.

Some have described Jakarta as the poster child of unsustainable urban development, and it is one of Asia’s most flood-prone conurbations.

The next few weeks look set to be blowback time.

The signs were everywhere on Thursday - flooded office basements and shopping malls, rubbish washed onto streets by fast-flowing waters, and overflowing canals and breached levees.

Relief officials will try to drain the waters from key streets, but the rains are set to continue for another two months, and a similar recurrence of a capital paralysed by continuous floods could happen as it did five years ago in 2007, and in Bangkok more recently in 2009.

Many Jakarta residents stuck in their offices and homes on Thursday described the city as “Indonesia’s Venice” with a note of sarcasm.

They are right - just as Venice is sinking, so too is coastal Jakarta – reports say it has sunk by some 10cm a year since 2007 and is increasingly susceptible to rising sea levels.

Former governor Fauzi Bowo last year outlined a plan for a dyke across the north of the city to keep rising sea levels out, but this, like talk of much-needed infrastructure improvements, remains a plan.

The booming Indonesian economy of recent years, much of it centred on Jakarta, has seen developers rush to build and bureaucrats eager to wilfully neglect zoning rules to welcome more revenue from them.

For instance, permits for buildings are issued even though their plots are in areas that have been designated as green belts or water catchment areas.

The Indonesian retailers’ association pegged the loss of income from recent flooding to 460 billion rupiah (S$58 million), a drop in the ocean to some considering that Indonesia’s economy is worth some US$1 trillion (S$1.2 trillion).

Jakartans affected by the floods will pick up the pieces and move on. But this year’s severe floods should serve as a reminder that development at all costs does cause damage.