Indonesia: The danger of floods becoming routine

Rizqy Amelia Zein Jakarta Post 11 Feb 15;

Every time the rainy season hits, flooding, landslides and tropical disease outbreaks occur like annual routines.

As a vast archipelago located on a very risky piece of earth, we can hardly avoid the fact that natural calamities are deeply embedded in our daily lives.

This week alone, severe flooding has struck twice in consecutive days and the Jakarta authorities declared a flood emergency.

Though many studies have confirmed flooding is Jakarta’s “geographical fate”, it is not entirely natural: a complex social and political process has made the city more vulnerable to disaster.

Disaster-mitigation and risk-awareness are far away from our mindset in dealing with environmental risks. Worse, commitment to harming the environment as little as possible or to generate positive impact for environmental sustainability, is barely practiced. The number of victims and the amount of material loss rises almost every time the flooding comes.

Let’s distinguish between hazard and risk. Hazard is anything that can harm people and the environment. Hazard is objective (manifested) or subjective (contains a systematic evaluation that makes the outcome more tolerable).

We all agree that the tsunami and earthquakes in Aceh and Nias were harmful, but construction of a nuclear reactor might produce diverse views regarding the danger. Environmental disasters are mostly hazards, not risks in themselves.

In Jakarta, the flood, or the hazard itself, is starting to be oddly perceived as something very ordinary, something that happens routinely every rainy season.

As a resident of Petogogan, Kebayoran Baru said, when the water level reaches 50 centimeters, he isn’t surprised. It is appalling that people are getting used to floods, as they no longer see flooding as something threatening.

Meanwhile, constant exposure to hazards can lead to greater and more damaging future risks. Jakarta faces the possibility of serious landslides and rising sea levels. The banality of environmental disaster also indicates that a hazard is socially constructed.

Despite dead bodies, damaged houses and disrupted daily lives, understanding risk requires undergoing a process that is at once social, political and cultural.

Unlike hazards, understanding risks at least incorporates two layers; probability and effect. Risk indicates the likelihood of certain diabolical events happening in the future causing massive destruction.

As Ulrich Beck argues in his book, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, risk is “the dark side” of modernity, a logical consequence of the growing scientific and technological developments leading to excessive exploitation.

Risk thus has grown beyond time, space and social class. In a risk society, Beck adds, everyone can be vulnerable.

Beck expresses his concern regarding the transition from traditionalism to modernity, which he claims was unhealthy. Modernization has produced individualism, liberal democracy and overt belief in science, which are principles subsequently transformed into greed and negligence.

Environmental risks, Beck says, are the negative outcomes of modernization. It thus has a different nature from other risks, in particular ways. Firstly, it is very complex, uncertain, comprises causal correlation and produces multiple consequences.

Thus, it is a combination of manufactured (human-caused) and external (nature-caused) risks. Jakarta flooding is not only caused by the fact that Jakarta is a delta city, but also by poor city planning and people’s negligence regarding environmental issues.

Secondly, environmental risks are a combination of individual wrongdoings and long-term contact with various hazards. Yet people constantly blame the government, while disregarding their littering and other environmentally destructive behaviors.

As the impact of risks are often delayed, such behavior remains. Thus, mitigation is almost impossible without everyone’s willingness to act.

Lastly, as Beck emphasizes, like wealth, risks are not evenly distributed. The ones who suffer the most are not necessarily the same people contributing to the risks. In Jakarta, the construction of shopping malls, apartments, large business areas, etc. are not properly regulated. The poorest are left to deal with the aftermath.

Alas, the public discourse with regard to environmental disaster focuses on debate over who is to blame and whether a disaster is a national or local responsibility.

The most shameful reactions involve politicizing the disaster. We are still reluctant to discuss disaster-mitigation, promoting pro-environmental behavior or reforming city planning.

We may need to ponder Beck’s “reflexive modernization” idea — a modest premise that embodies the spirit of reform rather than exploitation. Science and technology are no longer solely used as tools for exploiting natural resources, but more as instruments to politically and economically manage risk.

Science and technology can be harnessed for adaptation, sustainability and precautionary principles instead.

Building more canals, floodgates, etc. is useless if people continue to litter, or if Jakarta officials have no commitment to reforming their urban-planning policies.

There is no instant solution for Jakarta flooding. Mother Nature is fighting back; if we do not move and take action, something nastier is waiting ahead for us.

The writer, a graduate of the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh is a researcher at Crisis and Community Development Center, faculty of psychology Airlangga University in Surabaya.