In Jakarta, flood-hit slum residents aim for a higher, drier future

By Reuters/Zoe Tabary   December 11, 2017 | 06:37 pm PT
Jakarta, a coastal city built on a swampy plain, faces no end of flood worries, not least because roughly 40 percent of its land sits below sea level.

Whenever floods hit her one-room shack in northern Jakarta, Irma Susanti hangs her most precious furniture – a bed and a table – from the ceiling with a rope.

"You can never be too prepared," says the resident of Muara Angke, a coastal area in Jakarta. In July alone heavy rains flooded her home up to knee level, she said.

"But that wasn't the worst – once, the water was up to our necks and destroyed all the food, clothes, everything," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, mimicking the action of waves with her arm.

Increases in sea level and regular floods from heavy rain and monsoons, combined with crumbling infrastructure to cope with excess water, mean the city's slumdwellers often face the brunt of water problems, experts say.

But an effort by the city to re-house some of the city's threatened poor in low-cost but flood-resilient buildings is winning converts, not least among flood-battered slum-dwellers.

"Residents in informal settlements along the riverbank, like (in) Muara Angke, are most at risk of flooding," said Nyoman Prayoga, flood resilience programme manager at charity Mercy Corps Indonesia.

"Not only are they exposed to sea-level rise, they also have to deal with the drainage system being clogged up with trash, which makes the flooding worse," he added.

The Indonesian government is trying to address the growing problem by demolishing homes in flood-prone areas like Muara Angke to make way for new, affordable housing, said Muhammed Andri, head of the Penjaringan district in northern Jakarta.

"Four years ago, 90 percent of the district was flooded, and people's homes and belongings destroyed," the official said. "Since then we've relocated 1,200 families to new low-cost buildings in the area."

Residents pay the state about 250,000 Indonesian rupiah ($18.50) in rent each month, which includes their water and electricity supply, Andri added.

Waiting for homes

In the riverside slum of Muara Angke, ramshackle homes made of plastic, tin and cardboard line the muddy streets, with dozens of garbage bags piling up at every corner.

Norma, a stern-looking street vendor who sells sweets and plastic toys on a couple of wooden boxes and goes by only one name, has lived here her whole life.

On a good day, she can make up to 50,000 rupiah ($3.70) selling her goods. But heavy rain often "scares customers off and destroys my sweets", she said, waving her pair of flip-flops in the air to dry them.

Now a widow, she hopes to someday move with her six children into one of the "big buildings" built by the government nearby, so she has a place to quickly store her goods when it rains, saving the current 30-minute walk home in the rain.

Susanti thinks her family may be next on the list of candidates for affordable housing.

"Other residents have told me homes in the area would soon be destroyed to make way for new building work," she said.

"If it means we can move there, then they can destroy everything," she added, gazing at the grey and yellow buildings across the street.

Andri, the government official, said the rehousing effort has so far proved popular with flood-threatened residents.

"Many were at first hesitant to move as they are used to living on land, not in buildings. But I think they have been won over by the subsidized rent and safety from floods," he said.

The government plans to construct enough apartment buildings to house 5,000 more families in Muara Angke by 2019, he added.

Prevention, not correction 

The government is also setting up water pumps in the area to try to reduce flooding and is building a large-scale sea wall to keep out the encroaching ocean - though the project has come under fire from fishermen who fear for their catches and homes.

Meanwhile, Prayoga said there are more immediate steps those vulnerable to flooding can take to make life more manageable.

"People tend to only change their behaviors once they've been hit by a disaster, so we need to push for prevention rather than corrective action," the Mercy Corps worker explained.

"For example, (we) show them the economic benefit of putting belongings in a safe place ahead of floods, or explain why they shouldn't throw garbage into the river," he said.

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