Urban planning threatens Jakarta’s river dwellers

Urban planning threatens Jakarta’s river dwellersPerched in makeshift housing along the slippery banks of Jakarta’s Ciliwung River, the river dwellers are no strangers to the worst of nature’s tidings. So when the heavens opened above Indonesia’s capital in late January, their movement to safety was relatively swift and predictable. More dramatically, after close to a week of torrential rain, the city was paralysed, 80 per cent of the capital’s sub-districts were underwater, upwards of 300,000 residents were displaced, with many plucked from collapsing rooftops. Basic utilities were unavailable and the government stumbled towards what would become a half billion dollar rescue and rehabilitation program.

As the floodwaters began to recede and the river dwellers ventured back to the swollen Ciliwung, the scale of the disaster revealed itself beneath the veneer of residual mud. What might have been a process of retrieval became a laboured ordeal of disposal and ultimately deep reflection on a life so frequently imperilled by the elements.

For Jakarta’s squatter population, the city’s riverbanks have become a residential haven. They attract a wide collection of Java’s economic migrants. Living in densely packed shanties that shadow the water’s edge, most river bank communities are grossly overpopulated with multiple families sharing single dwellings. Environmental hazards abound, particularly the lack of public sanitation and the accumulation of uncovered garbage.

Those who have found employment typically ply their trade in the dark and narrow alleyways, as small shop owners and hawkers, street food vendors and scavengers for recyclable plastics, paper and wood. Incomes are marginal. Literacy, access to health services and the prevalence of disease are significant problems here — more acute than for more affluent residents who often live in safety mere meters above the river flood zones. It is a cruel discrepancy in a city whose population swells to almost 20 million during the working day.

Many of the river dwellers are viewed as 'non-residents' as they do not hold registration or family cards that guarantee entitlement to services, particularly during times of crisis. Government authorities have for years urged the river dwellers to relocate from their temporary homes to 'low-cost' high-rise apartments that flourish all over Jakarta.

These heavily subsidised housing projects have not proven popular with river dwellers though, in large part because of long term affordability issues and the non-traditional living environment. Economic opportunities are also unlikely to carry over from the river bank to Jakarta’s urban sprawl. Indeed, a recent Nielsen survey undertaken of residents indicated that more than 60 per cent were no more inclined now to move elsewhere, despite the devastation wreaked by the floods.

Jakarta remains a hopelessly flood prone city with almost half of the capital lying below sea level and a number of rivers intersecting across the city. Successive governments have stalled on the construction of a flood canal system that would divert floodwaters from the capital. These delays stretch back to Dutch colonial rule. The absence of flood plains along the river bank, an insufficient number of drainage pits and accumulated rubbish build-up along Jakarta’s river beds have also exacerbated flood risks for Jakarta’s residents. For the river dwellers, a façade of bamboo and sheet iron offers a flimsy defence against the powerful flood-tide.

Urban planning threatens Jakarta’s river dwellersIn some communities, flood devastation was near total. Polluted water lapped at doorsteps, shelters buckled under the weight of rain and fallen branches and limp plastic bags decorated tree tops, indicating the perilous height of the flood waters. For many households, all that remained of homes was a brittle wooden frame with mud lumped inside like an unrisen cake. Streets became a jumble of soiled bedding, broken tables and chairs, sodden clothing and children’s toys.

The physical carnage was compounded by emerging water-borne public health risks. Increased cases of dengue fever were reported and diarrhoeal cases reached chronic levels. The floods also inflicted traumatic scars on younger and more vulnerable residents, particularly during their flight to safety. All this amidst widespread electricity cuts, water shortages and a growing criticism of the government’s faltering humanitarian response.

In the aftermath of the floods, the ‘Gotong Royong’ spirit, a traditional Indonesian mantra for community participation towards a common goal, was a guiding force for rehabilitation and recovery. Teams of men and women were instrumental in leading community clean-up days, renting garbage trucks and high-pressure water pumps for removing mud from drains and public places and in reinforcing public health messages to prevent the spread of disease and illnesses associated with the flood. Money was often pooled to assist the worst-affected families deal with the crisis. Gotong Royong was a binding force for communities to put back together what had been so dramatically ripped apart.

Part of the flood recovery focused on preparedness for the next flood. Makeshift barriers and floodgates were built to better protect against future disasters. Evacuation and contingency plans were also discussed by river dwellers, utilising the support of local and international NGO’s. However, all of these measures are to a large extent compromised by the river dwellers unlawful status, and the government’s desire to clear these slum areas from the river bank.

Undoubtedly, this discord between community and broader urban planning, underpinned by issues of housing rights, threatens both the immediate and longer-term safety and security of a highly vulnerable section of the population. Whatever solution emerges, the floods will inevitably return.



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