Indonesians unnecessarily at the mercy of nature
Aris Ananta and Evi Nurvidya Arifin, Singapore

Earlier this month Jakarta — the center of Indonesian politics and business — was inundated by floodwater for about a week. Many thought it was Jakarta’s worst ever flooding, as it paralyzed 70 percent of the city.

The economic impact was felt beyond Greater Jakarta. The flood struck both rich and poor, regular people and elites. It killed at least 54 people and left more than 200,000 homeless. The death toll may yet increase from the water-borne diseases that have emerged in the aftermath of the flood. The financial loss from the flood is expected to reach Rp 8 trillion (US$879 million), pushing up Indonesia’s yearly budget deficit.

The disaster highlights the lack of action and commitment of both the community and the government. It is already common knowledge that development in Greater Jakarta has become more and more environmentally unfriendly.

In fact, the government of Jakarta has prepared a master plan to overcome the annual flood, which includes collaboration with neighboring administrations. The local government had planned to build a flood canal, which was scheduled to be completed in 2007. Yet the completion of the project has been delayed until 2010, mostly due to financial constraints.

In short, severe flooding in Jakarta has been anticipated for a long time. This human-made natural disaster could have been avoided but sufficient action was not taken. It was just another example of the avoidable natural disasters that have recently occurred in Indonesia.

A similar ritual to Jakarta’s yearly floods is the annual haze choking parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan as well as neighboring Singapore and Malaysia. The haze, caused by forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, can also be avoided. As with Jakarta’s floods, a master plan has been made, but sufficient action has not been taken.

The recent torrential rain in Greater Jakarta followed the December 2006 downpour that lead to damaging floods in Johor Baru, Malaysia, and hit other areas such as Singapore and northern Sumatra. At that time, heavy rain did not reach Jakarta or other parts of Indonesia.

From there, the heavy rain and severe floods moved southward, hitting southern Sumatra and Greater Jakarta in early February 2007. In several South Sumatra regencies the floods destroyed hundreds of hectares of rice fields just before harvest. In Jambi, flooding and landslides destroyed tens of hectares of vegetable farms. In West Sumatra, including the capital city of Padang, thousands of houses were submerged. Yet the media gave little coverage to the disasters in these three provinces, partly because they did not happen in Jakarta — the center of Indonesian political and business life.

The rainy season and its damaging results appear not to be ending soon. The Meteorology and Geophysics Agency predicts that some parts of Indonesia will continue to have rain throughout March. Torrential rains have been moving eastward, already flooding many rice fields in West Java; and causing landslides in Madiun, Central Java, in the second week of February this year.

Floods also struck Solo, in Central Java, in the middle of February although to a much smaller extent than in Jakarta. On February 18, a landslide triggered by the rain buried 13 people alive in Magelang, Central Java. Yogyakarta was once again hit by strong winds that forced thousands of people left homeless to stay in shelters and tents.

Heavy rain also aggravated the suffering of people in Sidoarjo, East Java and its surrounds, already struggling with the consequences of a 9-month flow of hot mud and gas spewing from the ground caused by a mining accident. The continuous heavy rain ruined barriers blocking mud from reaching nearby villages.

Thousands of people from eight mud-stricken villages have been displaced. Hundreds of hectares of farmland has been destroyed, and dozens of factories have been forced to close. The ecosystem along the Porong River and the Sidoarjo Delta has also suffered greatly.

Experts have warned that the mudflow could last for months, or even 30 years. Efforts have been made to stop it but have met little success so far. No long-term master plan has been made to minimize or overcome this rare tragedy. All that has been achieved is a series of short-terms “cures” to the rising flow of mud and gas.

Without a thorough and careful master plan and committed action, the impact of the hot mud and gas from Sidoarjo will be disastrous not only for Sidoardjo and East Java, but for the nation as a whole, neighboring countries and even the world eco-system.

Making matters worse, while some parts of Indonesia have been struggling with heavy rain, around 40,000 families in East Nusa Tenggara have experienced serious food shortages because of two consecutive droughts.

Back in Sumatra, in Indonesia’s west, Riau province has experienced forest and land fires. As of 14 February 2007 there were 153 hot spots in the province.

Indonesia’s natural disasters have generated complex problems such as the disruption of public services (such as transportation and telecommunications), the displacement of people, declines in food security, the spread of infectious diseases and the wiping out of financial assets. Indonesians have been living at the mercy of nature.

On the other hand, Indonesians are also enjoying continuous and increasingly favorable macro-economic conditions. It is therefore timely to take action to prevent other manmade natural disasters. These disasters are avoidable. If we don’t give environmentally friendly development priority, the fruits of sound macroeconomic development will be eroded, if not wiped out. Serious commitment is needed at all levels of government and in all communities, from the national to the provincial, district, sub-district, and village levels.

Aris Ananta is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. Evi Nurvidya Arifin is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.