Saving Jakarta from flooding

Studies under way to clean up flood-prone Ciliwung river, but squatters won't budge
Zubaidah Nazeer Straits Times 20 Mar 13;

JAKARTA - Whenever heavy rains hit Jakarta or highland areas in West Java, residents along one stretch of the Ciliwung River in the capital city are overwhelmed by floodwaters that rise as much as two storeys high.

Yet, those who live on the river bank like Madam Arimawati, 30, refuse to move away from the smelly, polluted river.

"The river and the community have provided for me and my family for so many decades, and this area is home to me," said the mother of two, whose parents and sister live with her along Jakarta's biggest river.

After the downtown area flooded in early January, the future of her Kampung Melayu home may not be secure, as officials have started looking closely at how to ease the flooding. The plans could include moving out squatters like her and widening the river banks.

Forty-six students in a workshop run by the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) - a research institute jointly set up by Singapore's National Research Foundation and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich - are studying the Ciliwung River and the 350,000 people living around it.

They plan to come up with proposals to reduce the flood risk, rid its clutter by illegal squatters and transform the waters into a river teeming with life.

"Today, the problem at this river is very extreme," said Professor Christophe Girot, the project's leader and ETH Zurich's chair of landscape architecture. "There is severe overcrowding and no respect for the water and the environment."

Indeed, the issues plaguing the river community are a reflection of the chronic problems the capital city faces as it grapples with overcrowding and a lack of commitment to see through programmes to improve outdated infrastructure.

The floods in January jolted the authorities when a dyke burst and waist-deep water flooded the streets, paralysing central Jakarta.

The massive flooding revealed complacency in flood-containment plans in a city cut by 13 rivers, of which the Ciliwung is the largest.

On Monday, students from the National University of Singapore and ETH Zurich partnered those from the University of Indonesia and Bogor Agricultural University to collect data and talk to residents as they studied two large river communities to come up with ideas on rehabilitating the Ciliwung.

Their workshop is part of a five-year study by the FCL's 14 researchers, comprising experts such as hydrologists, engineers and landscape architects.

"The challenge here is the high-density living, and how you get residents to change their habits at a river they depend on for bathing, washing laundry, swimming and sanitation... relocating people will not be easy," said Ms Herlily, vice-chair of the University of Indonesia's Department of Architecture.

Another problem is the lack of terrain maps. That has forced the researchers to hit the ground to map out settlements and create a 3-D model to simulate flood plans. They also flew drones over the area to survey the land.

The World Bank and the South Korean government have pledged billions of dollars to dredge the river and ease floods. But getting residents to move out would be another thing.

Said Madam Arimawati: "I will never move, not even to a place that has a nice new television... because this is my tanah air (homeland)."