A Flooding Call for Conservationists

Also in Tempo English February 4th, 2013.

The flood in Jakarta on January 17, 2013 is a wake-up call. It has two new features: long inundation of the coastal Pluit and gushes that overwhelmed central Thamrin Avenue. The cause for both is infrastructure failure. In Pluit some pumps did not work. Near Thamrin a segment of the canal embankment along Latuharhary Street collapsed. The rain intensity on January 16-17 is only half the peak in 2007. The structural approach has failed. It is time for conservationist alternatives.

One can always say that there should be more infrastructure to channel excess water. This statement is faulty for seeing only one third of the equation: F = Sr – (Q1+Q2); where F is flood, Sr is surface run-off, Q1 is capacity of natural drains and Q2 is capacity of man-made drains. To reduce F we need to reduce Sr and increase (Q1+Q2). Normalizing rivers and building canals only increase (Q1+Q2). This will not solve the problem without reducing or stabilizing Sr, as the (Q1+Q2) will always be overfilled by increasing Sr.

In rapidly developing economies, merely enlarging (Q1+Q2) will induce more human activities and structures that will result in greater Sr that in turn will require ever larger (Q1+Q2). It spoils dependency on conventional infrastructure and creates a competition with nature that we can never avoid nor win. It creates a catch-22 situation. For more than 100 years the same approach has been pursued and failed in Jakarta for the above reasons. Every time a new infrastructure is completed, bigger floods occurs the following years.

Sediments have been a historical factor, too. Most canals in 17th century Jakarta had been refilled and roads built on top of them only a few decades after they were completed. Most waterways in Jakarta, big and small, have their capacities reduced to between 30 % and 60 % because of sedimentation. No significant dredging in the last four decades.

The amount of surface run-off is increasing due to deforestation in the upstream areas south of Jakarta, and expanding built-up areas in Jakarta that leaves less space for water to park and recharge the earth and produces more waste water. Alleged corruptions manipulate violations of existing building regulations on at least maximum floor area ratio (FAR), building coverage ratio (BCR), green area ratio and recharging-wells requirement.

Rising sea level and land subsidence made Jakarta require more energy to pump water out to the sea. Some spots in the metropolis subside by a rate of 18 cm per year. A single main cause for subsidence is the massive extraction of ground water, as water companies can supply only up to 60% of piped water demand. Jakarta’s flood is not an isolated problem. It is linked to clean water and other environmental problems that stem out from a wrong pattern of unsustainable low quality growth and lack of reinvestment to help the earth recover its natural capacity.

Environmentalists have since long promoted conservationist approach: Reduce surface run-off by reforestation, recharge it into the ground and enforce zero run-off policy on every plot of land. Reforestation recharges more water into the ground, absorbs pollutants, increases biodiversity, and slows down run-off. Recharging-wells reduce run-off, avoid transportation of sediments and add to ground water reserve. All are extremely important to solve Jakarta’s holistic water –not just flood– problem. By now we have sufficient hydrological and geological data that would make that approach effective.

Why is it not not happening? It is cheaper, decentralized, participatory and empowering citizens. No big hardware to show-off. Therefore, it might not be a sexy choice for politicians. Do we have time to wait for its slow results? If we begin the conservationist program soon, the city’s sustained program of dredging all its significant waterways will buy us some time.

Ministry of Public Works proposes to build more diversion canals. It is not right to see how bureaucracy with very limited perspective imposes their shortsighted option. It is even worse to see politicians only do what is possible rather than what is truly needed. President SBY should devise a more holistic and strategic program, and enforce the two provincial administrations of Jakarta and West Java to cooperate. People should demand this.

Jakarta is not alone. Makassar was flooded weeks before. Bangkok, Manila and Mumbai are flooded repeatedly. The ecological message is universal. Would Jakarta be a pioneer in changing from failing structural to sustainable ecological approach? With a new governor known for his openness and innovativeness, we should hope for that.

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