Indonesia: What’s Clogging Jakarta’s Waterways? You Name It

JOE COCHRANE New York Times 3 Oct 16;

An excavator getting trash out of a river in Jakarta, Indonesia, in August. The city is dredging its 17 rivers and canals — the first time it has done so since the 1970s. Credit Kemal Jufri for The New York Times
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Standing at his post at a floodgate in the middle of Jakarta, Bejo Santoso says he has seen it all.

He doesn’t mean a lifetime of experiences. He is talking about the variety of man-made waste that floats down the Ciliwung River before it is expunged into a deep bay that a Dutch fleet spotted more than 400 years ago.

Mr. Bejo and dozens of his colleagues stationed at waterways around the city have pulled out refrigerators, televisions, mattresses and furniture. Sometimes they find human corpses — the missing victims of flash floods.

“Every year we find one or two,” said Mr. Bejo, 49, who operates an excavator that removes an estimated 740 cubic feet of garbage and natural debris from the river each day. That’s enough to fill his crew’s truck three times during a shift.

The Jakarta city administration, with help from international donors and the national government, is dredging its 17 rivers and canals — the first time it has done so since the 1970s. The waterways were 70 percent blocked, a central contributor to the city’s chronic flooding problems.

Jakarta is one of Asia’s largest cities, with an estimated population of more than 10 million. About 20 percent of its daily waste ends up in local rivers and canals, the city’s public works department has determined.

Workers like Mr. Bejo use floating orange buoys to trap the garbage. Most of it, they say, is thrown in by people who live in riverbank communities and were never taught to think that bodies of water were anything other than garbage dumps.

Opportunistic scavengers — as well as some city waste management employees — string nets and, sometimes, cages in the waterways to collect plastic and metal items, which they can sell to recycling operations.

“It’s not easy to change the notion that the river is a trash can,” said Steven Tabor, the Asian Development Bank’s country director for Indonesia.

On a recent day, the pile of trapped trash bobbing on the surface at Mr. Bejo’s floodgate, in Jakarta’s Manggarai neighborhood, included a motorcycle helmet, sandals, soccer balls, Styrofoam containers, a bicycle inner tube and a pillow.

There was some natural debris, too: banana trees and a dead rat.

Jakarta’s clogged waterways are not just a minor irritant and eyesore. They amount to a serious urban environmental problem that has killed dozens of people during flooding in recent years, caused countless illnesses, displaced more than one million people and led to billions of dollars in losses.

Throughout its modern history, Jakarta has had problems with water. The capital lies along the Java Sea at the end of a river delta, so, by its very topography, it is already prone to flooding during the rainy season, which begins this month.

In addition, cyclical tidal surges erode its coastline and flood nearby neighborhoods — both affluent and poor — forcing the national government to heighten existing sea walls and to draft plans to build a series of new ones.

Adding insult to injury, the northern half of the capital is sinking at an average rate of two to three inches a year because of excessive groundwater extraction over the last three decades, one of the fastest rates of sinking in any city in the world.

Jakarta’s flooding problem has become exponentially worse for two reasons. First, the national government and city officials did no proper dredging or waterway maintenance between 1970 and 2010 — despite repeatedly claiming that it had been carried out.

Second, unchecked development in the greater Jakarta region, which is now home to more than 30 million people, meant retention ponds, swampland and other open spaces that normally absorb rainwater were paved over for shopping malls and apartment blocks.

That mismanagement took its toll. Since the mid-1990s, Jakarta has experienced major floods every five years or so, along with smaller floods each year.

In 2002, more than 60 residents were killed and 350,000 were forced from their homes by massive flooding. In 2007, nearly 70 percent of the city was submerged by floodwaters that killed 52 people and displaced more than 450,000.

And in 2013, torrential rains caused a nearly 100-foot-long section of a dike in Jakarta’s Dutch-built West Flood Canal to collapse, completely flooding the city center. Other parts of the city were also inundated, killing at least 46 people.

The head of Jakarta’s public works department estimated that only 20 percent of the city’s sewage drains worked properly. The rest were clogged with garbage, debris and utility cables.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the first dredging program in four decades began in Jakarta, carried out by both the city government and the national Ministry of Public Works, and supported by a $189 million grant from the World Bank that followed years of negotiations.

The project, which is continuing, has protected an estimated one million additional Jakarta residents from flooding, said Iwan Gunawan, a senior disaster management adviser at the World Bank in Jakarta.

He said there had been an estimated 120 million cubic feet of sediment — both man-made and natural — in 10 rivers and waterways that are being dredged and rehabilitated with the grant’s support.

“The 2007 floods inundated more than half the city, and really became a wake-up call for decision makers,” Mr. Iwan said.

“The question was, if the river system was returned to its normal condition, what would the improvement be?” he said. “The answer was that an additional one million people will be safe from floods, which is pretty good.”

But he added that both the national and Jakarta governments needed to “install a maintenance mentality” for the city’s waterways to prevent the clogging problem from returning, as public education campaigns against littering have been ineffective at best.

A short walk along the banks of the Ciliwung River from Mr. Bejo’s floodgate, Manutur Sitanggang, the foreman of a floating excavator crew, said they dig up around 35,000 cubic feet of sediment each day, as they try to restore that section of the river back to a depth of 20 feet.

Working in shifts from sunup to sundown, and battling strong currents, the 10-person team dumps the sediment on the riverbanks before hauling it by truck to a landfill outside the city.

“We see a lot of stuff — clothes, kitchen tools, dead cats,” Mr. Manutur said. “It can get mind-numbingly boring.”

Early indications are the dredging is helping, at least in some areas of the city.

In Teluk Gong, a riverside slum along the Angke Bawah River in North Jakarta, residents have dealt with flooding for years.

Many live in ramshackle wooden houses along the riverbanks, making their living as day laborers or at food carts. On a recent day, the stench from an open garbage dump occasionally wafted through the unpaved streets.

Miftah Wicaksono, 52, operates a small boat that transports people across the river.

“Everyone is happier when there are no floods,” he said, since the rising waters mean getting onto rooftops, sometimes for hours on end, and continually mopping out houses.

Khaeroh Hasanah, 35, runs a small open-air stand that sells snacks, drinks, cigarettes and toiletries.

“It’s been good because I haven’t had to spend time cleaning up stinky mud after the floods,” she said. “I feel safer for sure, and I hope it’s a long time before we have a flood here again.”

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