For those of us who like to compare the capital cities of Southeast Asia, at first glance Jakarta has a relative abundance of mature trees, the best example of which may be the view over the central district of Menteng. Bangkok does not even come close. Its Royal Palace gardens and Lumpini Park in the city center are the only green oases among a concrete jungle of buildings that is often mistaken as a sign of development.
But mature trees are only one aspect of being green. Green space — space taken up by formal parks, gardens and naturally occurring plants, trees and other organic material — has declined in Jakarta from approximately 35 percent in 1970 to just under 10 percent today.
Why does it matter?
There are two key reasons why green space is critical. First, in any city at the mercy of a rainy season, green space is needed to absorb water during annual floods. Regular flooding hampers a modern and growing city. It is not just the traffic, which comes to a standstill each time there is a flood; there is a domino effect on development.
The 2007 floods submerged 5,000 hectares of land, contributing to a fall in Jakarta’s stock market. Losses from infrastructure damage and state revenue were at least Rp 5.2 trillion ($582.4 million), while 85 people were killed and about 350,000 forced from their homes.
This is not to say the government is not aware of the critical need to prevent flooding. Several anti-flooding projects are in the works or are at the development stage. The city government is expected to build a giant seawall on the North Jakarta coast to catch one source of flooding at its onset. A bylaw on spatial planning was also passed recently, setting out the various uses for city areas until 2030 in a blueprint for the next chapter of Jakarta’s development.
The bylaw requires the city to dredge 13 primary rivers running through the city to improve the capacity of the West and East Flood Canals, the Cengkareng drain and the connectivity of the whole system. The East Flood Canal project was completed in December 2009. Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo, when opening the canal, said it was designed to contain 390 cubic meters of water per second, enough to avert flooding for the next 100 years in North and East Jakarta.
However, promises alone cannot hold back the water. Jakarta’s citizens have witnessed floods every February since, including this year when heavy rain submerged the road connecting Mangga Dua mall and the Ancol amusement park. The city’s TransJakarta bus system was halted during the flood, leaving citizens stranded.
Flood canals are but one issue. The state minister for the environment, Rachmat Witoelar, has said the city’s floods are also caused by excessive development of land that was previously used for water catchment. Local authorities have been overzealous in issuing building permits in Jakarta’s designated water catchment zones. The World Bank has noted that the runoff time — the time between the onset of rain and the start of a flood — has decreased over time. In the 1980s it took, on average, three hours for water to fill the streets. Today it can take less than an hour.
Others blame the urban poor. As the people who live in slums along the city’s rivers, water sewers and canals, they are often held responsible for the garbage dumped into waterways, exacerbating floods during the wet season. While the lack of other garbage disposal options is an issue for the urban poor, all citizens in Jakarta need to be better informed about the consequences of dumping waste.
It is disingenuous to blame Jakarta’s poorest citizens for being the primary cause of floods, though certainly they are the most affected by them. The real causes are many and varied. Climate change, poor urban spatial practices, the fact that Jakarta is sinking (by as much as five meters from 1950 to 2025, the World Bank predicts), a growing population and the decrease in green spaces all contribute to floods. It is a self-perpetuating cycle in which each factor helps to worsen the ramifications of the others.
As to the particular problem of flooding, better drainage is most assuredly needed. The new spatial planning bylaw should help with this, but its impact will be maximized when accompanied by the outer city flood wall, regular dredging of rivers, better discipline from citizens with their garbage and an increase in the number of greened micro-spaces along paved roads.
The second reason that green spaces are critical is that they provide recreational spots for people to relax and feel good about city life. Many of the great capital cities of the world have parks that not only define their layout but actually add value to property close by and increase the standard of living for all city dwellers.
In big cities, green space is not wasted space. Indeed, for many, access to green spaces should not only be a priority but could be defined in terms of rights — the right of access for all citizens to healthy environments. What’s more, such green planning contributes to the sustainability of any big city. Car-free days and environmentally friendly public transportation systems will only help improve air quality so much.
Currently, 9.6 million people live in Jakarta and by 2030 a population of 12.5 million is predicted. Where will they all live? Where can green spaces be added? Fauzi’s decision to close 27 gas stations in 2007 to make space for green areas was a milestone to be celebrated. However, his target for Jakarta is 30 percent green space, and while there has been some progress toward this figure, it has been painfully slow. In 2000, only 9 percent of Jakarta was allocated to green space. In the decade since, that figure has only gone up one percentage point.
Earlier this month the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) announced that Jakarta’s nightmarish routine of dealing with floods would be in full swing by November. Rains are expected to start in southern Jakarta in the beginning of October, followed by North Jakarta toward the end of the month and finally reaching the central areas by November.
Perhaps it is already too late to prevent this year’s flooding, but flooding does not have to be inevitable. If the official target for open public green space for Jakarta remains at 30 percent and the above issues show why this figure has not been reached, at least defining a target and knowing the causes of flooding will give citizens and authorities something to work toward.
Maxine Carr is a research officer at Strategic Asia Indonesia, a consultancy promoting cooperation among Asian countries.