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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Jakarta Water Woes

Air Date: Week of

The Australian reporter, Stephen Fitzpatrick. (Courtesy of Stephen Fitzpatrick)

Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, has been devastated by severe flooding in recent weeks, and heavy rains aren't the only reason why. Stephen Fitzpatrick is the Jakarta correspondent for The Australian newspaper and he joins host Steve Curwood to discuss the crisis and some of its possible causes.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Life can be challenging in Indonesia. The tsunami of 2004 killed 160,000 people. The bird flu has claimed its most human victims so far in this island nation. And now for the third time in a decade, torrential rains have caused catastrophic flooding in its capital, Jakarta. It’s only the start of the monsoon season and the 12 million or so people who live along the city’s 13 rivers are bracing for even more rain. On the line with me now from Jakarta is Stephen Fitzpatrick. He's a correspondent for the newspaper, The Australian. Hi there.

FITZPATRICK: Hi there, how are you?

CURWOOD: So, tell me, just how bad has it been there in Jakarta this monsoon season?

FITZPATRICK: Well, since the night of February one, when a bunch of rivers broke their banks, up to, anywhere up to 70 percent of Jakarta has been flooded and pretty much made uninhabitable. So people even in the last couple days as the situation has eased a little bit might have, for instance, left their area and gone back as the waters recede and then discovered that they're suddenly flooded again and have to leave so it’s been difficult for the city.

The Australian reporter, Stephen Fitzpatrick.
(Courtesy of Stephen Fitzpatrick)

CURWOOD: Monsoon is very much a part of life and culture in Indonesia. Every year they’re expected. What makes this particular monsoon season so much worse than previous rainy seasons?

FITZPATRICK: Yes, well very good question and if you listen to the Governor of Jakarta answer it we just all should have known that it would come and could have done nothing about it. He says, “Well it was just a lot more rain than we expected and what am I supposed to do?” Of course the criticism that’s directed back at him in response to that is that, planning, or unplanned development in the city has been allowed to go on at a furious pace and that that has swallowed up areas that were previously effectively water run-off areas. Um, the mountainous area to the south has been subject to some fairly severe deforestation. It’s a city that’s outstripped its ability to cope with natural occurrences like the annual monsoon season. And in fact, perhaps you get the debate at a moment like this about, about what to do about it. And a lot of that debate I might suggest will be forgotten in the coming weeks. But one of those conversations from, really from City Hall down at the moment is the ongoing one about should we move the capitol somewhere south? The land area we’ve got here just isn’t big enough to cope with running a central government as well as the commercial functions.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the infrastructure there. Now, Indonesia was for a long time was a Dutch colony. Of course much of the Netherlands is under water. The Dutch are pretty good at building dikes and waterways and canals. What does Jakarta have?

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, well it has dikes and water ways and canals built by the Dutch. Unfortunately, they haven’t really been improved since the Dutch built them about 200 years ago. And that’s one of the basic problems. A goodly part of Jakarta City is actually below sea-level, which is one of the major problems. There’s currently a project to build a major east-west canal, a new canal, that would be able to distribute major flooding waters. But that’s bogged down in politics and you know, land acquisition issues, and that could be several years away if it’s ever finished.

CURWOOD: Now, I’m looking at an editorial from the Jakarta Post and the title is, “Oops We All Did it Again.” Have people come to expect this sort of disaster in Indonesia?

FITZPATRICK: Yes they have, well certainly in Jakarta. But across the whole country, I mean obviously this is quite a spectacular event over the past week and a bit in the capitol. But every wet season there are landslides and rivers breaking their banks and people dying as a result of all of that right across the country. And there tends to be a little bit of a shoulder-shrug about it all. And a quick "send in some rescue teams and people with rubber boats and whatever can be assembled to deal with those situations."

CURWOOD: Now, I’m told that the "que sera" attitude about all this might be linked to the fact that most people affected by this are very poor.

FITZPATRICK: In general most people, most people affected by natural disaster in Indonesia tend to be. That’s been one of the interesting things of the current disaster in Jakarta is pretty much everyone has been affected and pretty much all areas of the city have been flooded. So, slum areas along river banks get flooded every year regular as clockwork. You can speak to people who live in these slum areas and who say, “I grew up here, my mother grew up here, and the floods come every year and we just sit on the roof when the floods come and go back and clean up the house when they go.” And there’s an expectation that that’s just how life is.

CURWOOD: What concerns about climate change have entered into the debate and discussion about this monsoon disaster?

FITZPATRICK: I would have to say none, and for probably a range of reasons. The level of debate about environmental issues generally in Indonesia tends not to be a very far reaching one. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. One of them is that many issues- development- in Indonesia tend not to have long-term concerns, and often tends to have fairly short-term and quick profit based concerns.

CURWOOD: So, what are the health implications of a disaster of this scale? I mean the water can’t be all that clean that’s been flooding the city.

FITZPATRICK: No the water is filthy. And it’s not just the water that’s flooding the streets but town water generally in Jakarta, is not fit for consumption in general and there’s a huge bottled water industry. But often in homes people will use ground water, well water, but that well water has all been polluted by the flood so it’s become unusable. There is serious fears of gastrointestinal diseases, skin infection type diseases. The other significant health risk which Indonesia, and Jakarta especially has been battling in recent months is dengue fever. The number of dead, from dengue, before these floods was in the dozens. And that possibly is only going to increase with the ability for the dengue-carrying mosquito to breed in all this water.

CURWOOD: So with all the stress on the public health system there in Jakarta and Indonesia, Indonesia is also the epicenter right now of the avian flu outbreak. Now there are not many people that have it yet, but what concerns are there that with all the chaos that’s going on something could happen to bird flu there?

FITZPATRICK: There’s no suggestion that there will be an increase in infections directly as a result of the floods other than the general, general health problems. People are more likely to get sick when they’re stressed and already not very healthy. So, I guess that’s entirely likely. I think more specifically on the bird flu issue there’s a, at the moment, a general sense of "wait and hold your breath" because there’s every chance that it will explode. And although Indonesia leads the world- unfortunately leads the world- in the number of deaths directly attributed to bird flu, it so far remains in check. But there’s a very real concern that that situation could change and could change very quickly.

CURWOOD: So how were you affected by this flooding?

FITZPATRICK: Personally?


FITZPATRICK: Well, I was very fortunate in that I live right in the inner city, ah very close to my office, which was a very deliberate choice because in general you can’t get around Jakarta during peak-hour traffic times at all, so it makes sense to live close to where you work if at all possible. And I was just very lucky that my little section of Jakarta doesn’t seem to have flooded. I mean I live only 100 meters from one of the 13 rivers. I can look across the other side and I can see the Four Seasons hotel which has been flooded on the other side of my river so I really was just very lucky.

CURWOOD: Stephen Fitzpatrick is the Jakarta correspondent for The Australian. Thank you sir.

FITZPATRICK: Thank you very much.



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