Climate change is flooding Jakarta: Watch the documentary

As environmental degradation causes the Ciliwung River to flood more, Jakarta’s government plans to relocate riverbank communities against their will.

Like other expanding megalopolises Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and most populous city, faces tremendous challenges. High population growth, increasing house prices and land scarcity have reduced the availability of affordable housing. This has forced millions into living in informal settlements, commonly known as slums. Many of these are located along the Ciliwung River, one of Jakarta’s most polluted waterways, which floods its banks at least once a year, resulting in significant losses costing billions of dollars and many lives.

Two major factors contribute to the increase of floods: the establishment of settlements along the river, which changes land use and increases waste, and climate change.


Intensive construction has turned entire forests and farming plots into paved areas and concrete buildings, making surfaces that previously absorbed water “waterproof”. Water levels have kept rising whilst the river has turned into a dumping site for domestic, industrial and agricultural waste. This has aggravated pollution, leading to higher levels of river sedimentation, thus reduction in drainage capacity.


With 40% of its total area below sea level, Jakarta is naturally vulnerable to climate change and weather-related disasters. Rainfall intensity and total rainfall have been continuously increasing. This, in turn, exacerbates the drainage problem: heavy rain falling onto “waterproof” areas increases the height of the Ciliwung river and the intensity of floods.


Government agencies have put flood prevention at the top of the agenda. In 2013, the Ciliwung River Normalisation Programme was inaugurated. In addition to widening the river and building concrete roads on each side to prevent new settlements from emerging, the plans include the forced relocation of riverbank communities into low-cost subsidised apartments.


The plans have been designed without community participation, neglecting the social and economic needs of those affected.


Residents living along the Ciliwung River’s banks have built a strong communal identity over the years in a setting where the distinction between private and public space is blurred. “We’re all part of one big family,” is a sentence often heard there. They fear that their system of social interactions based on traditional village structure can’t be maintained in government housing. For example, as most residents’ jobs are in the informal sector, and their homes are also their workplaces, they fear that living in apartment blocks will not permit them to continue in their commercial activities.


With the help of the NGO Ciliwung Merdeka, residents have designed a vertical house that, if adopted, would be more sensitive to their needs. Its design makes land more resistant to floods, uses environmentally friendly materials, makes room for the informal sector to keep running and respects the social space of traditional villages. It remains uncertain, however, whether Indonesian authorities are ready to accept such community participation in urban planning.

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