After the flood, time to change people’s mind-set
B. Nicodemus, Jakarta

The impacts of economic development on the environment have been expounded for years. In 1972, the Club of Rome, a global think thank on international issues, published its famous report Limit to Growth, which predicted that economic growth could not continue indefinitely due to the limited availability of natural resources. Fifteen years later, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, published its report titled Our Common Future.

The report, also known as the Brundtland Report, introduced environmental concern to the development concept. Next, considering the detrimental effect of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Kyoto Protocol was designed in 1997 to cut the emission of CO2 and other greenhouses gases as a response to climate change.

The message of the above efforts is clear. Indonesia should be very careful in the development process. However, as always, its people are stubborn and have short memories. Jakarta is under attack. This time Jakartans should not fear bombs, but water. Following downpours on the night of February 1 this year, the city was turned to a big pond due to massive floods. Internet and telecommunication systems went down. Electricity was not available. Public transportation was delayed or canceled. Economic activities came to a halt. The city was crippled.

In the light of this condition the authority blamed nature. “The flood is a cyclical natural phenomenon. It comes every five years. There is nothing we can do about it,” said Jakarta’s governor in a statement.

For some, following the 2002 floods it was difficult to comprehend that Jakarta was once again submerged. In addition, it seemed as though the floods were increasing in scale every five years. In 2002, the floods did not cover as many of the city’s districts as they did this year. It showed that the city has learned nothing from previous floods and has failed to take necessary steps to avoid a repeat of the “phenomenon”.

It is even more difficult to comprehend that Jakartans should accept this natural phenomenon every five years. As the deluge worsens, does it mean we must face increasingly devastating floods in 2012? Must we see the city totally submerged in 2017?

As always when bad things happen the authorities attempt to shift responsibility away from themselves. They prefer to play the easy game by finding a scapegoat — in this case it was nature.

Obviously, pointing the finger at nature is meaningless. Water has natural characteristics. It flows to lower places. This law will never change. Therefore, such water should flow to water catchment areas to avoid overflowing.

In Jakarta, the availability of water catchment areas has exhibited a declining trend. As cited in the media, these areas have dropped from 14 percent to only 9 percent. Why? The catchment areas have been converted into shopping malls, office buildings, apartments, condominiums and so on.

How could this be allowed to happen? The answer: the city has been long servicing the so-called modern economy. It has forced the economy to grow fast because of the belief that satisfaction and happiness will come with high economic growth. For this reason, a development method has been imposed that is not friendly to the environment. What is witnessed in Jakarta mirrors the development process on a national scale.

Each year the government, business sectors, all of us, are very keen to know what Indonesia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will be. To put it simply, people want to know how many items of clothing, computers, cell phones and cars will be produced. They expect to see this year’s GDP exceed last year’s and likewise for next year’s to eclipse this year’s. In other words, people would like to see more goods made available on the market. However, they never ask what impacts such ambitions have on the environment. They take if for granted that the environment and natural resources will support their ambition indefinitely.

This is the main problem. Indonesians are trying to believe that as their GDP increases their lives will also improve. As a result, they are forcing it to grow higher at all cost. The very nature of the modern economy is clear. It cannot be stopped. On the contrary, it needs to be accelerated. To realize such ambitions, Jakartans do not seem to care that the air and water will be polluted and water catchment areas will disappear. On a national scale, there is no shortage of examples. As the country tries to boost the economy through investments, it lets foreign investors in mining explore without strict regulations to protect the environment. It is a pity that Indonesia has learned nothing from either the Freeport or Newmont cases.

From a modern economic standpoint, commodities come from production process and hence factories should be established. To reach customers, the commodities need to be marketed and therefore shopping malls need to be built.

Certainly, if high economic growth is desired more commodities must be produced — this means more factories and more shopping malls. For this, all spaces available should be utilized. In other words, if we only aim to have a higher GDP, it is acceptable to convert water absorption areas into buildings.

This is what has happened in Jakarta. There has been a mushroom of ritzy malls around the city. It looks as though the existing malls are not enough, as new ones are being built again and again, as in Kelapa Gading, Taman Mini and Senayan. The existing water catchment areas cannot be protected with only our mindset. As a result, it would be very easy to convert these areas to apartments, condominiums or something else. It explains why the city’s water catchment areas are less than 10 percent.

The floods have reminded us that the time has come to change the framework. Human wants are infinite, but the world is not. GDP is a poor indicator for measuring the quality of ones life. It only shows how many goods are produced. It does not show how many water catchment areas have been lost or how bad the air is due to pollution.

Therefore, the solution to the floods is not merely to build water canals. First, our mindset must change. As implied in the quotation above, the modern economy should have limits. Therefore protecting the environment is no less important than fostering economic development. What is the point in having luxurious buildings or ritzy malls when the city will eventually disappear from the map anyway?

The writer is a graduate from the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. He works for a Jakarta-based multilateral institution dealing with economic, agriculture, science and technology issues. He can be reached at barlevnico@gmail.com.

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