Although most of Jakarta’s street vendors begin their days soon after sunrise, Maesaroh is forced to wait for the water that inundates her kiosk every night to dry before customers can step into her stall without soaking their feet. The wait is painful, for her nerves and her purse.
“Imagine how many potential customers I lose,” she said.
It’s been like this since Maesaroh, 25, moved to the Muara Baru slum area in North Jakarta seven years ago. Almost every night, she said, the floor of her house, which is attached to her stall, is submerged under 30 centimeters to 50 centimeters of water. “[The flooding] usually starts at midnight and ends at 11 a.m.,” she said, “and it goes on for two, three weeks every month.”
In other words, she and her neighbors spend at least half of every month living in floodwater.
“I used to sell cooked food for breakfast as well,” she said, but since the floods have come more regularly in the past two years, she attracts few early-morning customers.
Some might think Muara Baru, arguably the worst slum in Jakarta, is cursed, as the rest of the capital only deals with the specter of flooding on an annual or biannual basis. But this area lies on the city’s northern coastline, leaving it at the mercy of tidal surges.
Whenever the Java Sea rises during the monthly lunar tidal cycle, water rushes inland and inundates parts of Muara Baru, which like 40 percent of Jakarta lies below sea level, according to Fakhrurozi, head of the water resources division at Jakarta’s Public Works Department.
Jakarta is living on borrowed time, experts say. Nine years from now it will be at the mercy of an upswing in the tides unless city and national government officials finally do something about it. International experts predict tides will surge far inland without a new sea defense wall in Jakarta Bay.
The areas of the city most vulnerable to tidal flooding, Fakhrurozi said, are Muara Baru, Muara Karang, Penjaringan, Pademangan, Tanjung Priok, Pluit, Koja and Kapuk Muara. Most are industrial areas surrounded by densely populated villages.
Those likely to be most affected will be people like Maesaroh, who can least afford it. Hoping for a better life, Maesaroh, who is married with a young son, moved to Jakarta from Garut, West Java, in 2002. But she and thousands of other people in her community are forever struggling with tidal floods. People in many other low-lying areas in the north experience the same problem.
“My sister moved here first,” she said. “I thought at that time: ‘Who wouldn’t want to seek better opportunity in Jakarta.’ ”
Tika, 27, who also operates a little shop in Muara Baru, thought the same thing when she moved to the capital in 1994. Tidal flooding has been a part of her life ever since. “Never in those 15 years has a month gone by without flooding,” Tika said as she played with her two children inside her stall.
Amid the stench from the ever-present saltwater and a nearby prawn vendor, Tika sells everything from snacks to shampoo to cooked food. Her house and kiosk are in a small alley in the neighborhood that she says collects the deepest floodwater, up to 1 meter high during particularly strong tides.
“It’s like a small tsunami,” she said, adding that the current is so strong that it usually drags away shoes, sandals and other items left outside people’s homes. “The worst one happened earlier this year. I lost my refrigerator and a mattress to the flood.” A refrigerator, she said, is vital for kiosk owners like herself, who keep stocks of food and beverages to sell. Otherwise, her food is at the mercy of insects that roam freely inside the kiosk.
Government officials were warned about the potentially catastrophic tidal flooding back in 1994, said Hongjoo Hahm, the lead infrastructure specialist at the World Bank in Jakarta, “but they didn’t listen.”
How bad could it get? Imagine the State Palace having a sea-front view, he said. “This is nothing like river water — this is unstoppable. This thing is a monster of an event.”
And these “killer tides” didn’t appear from nowhere. They pose a multibillion dollar threat to the capital’s northern areas because these areas are continually sinking due to excessive extraction of groundwater by industry.
According to the Jakarta administration’s own estimates, the city has sunk by as much as 1.5 meters in the past decade — and not coincidentally, by about 2 meters near the site of the former Bintang beer factory in Pluit. (Take a guess why.)
Jan Jaap Brinkman, a Dutch water expert and adviser to the Ministry of Public Works, said North Jakarta desperately needs a comprehensive early warning system because about five million people are vulnerable to tidal flooding that could strike without warning. “[Parts of the area] sank 26 centimeters between September 2007 and August 2008,” Brinkman said.
He warns that Jakarta could sink even lower in the coming decades, and that without better management, areas located up to five kilometers inland could be submerged and rendered uninhabitable.
And that’s bad news for people like Maesaroh and Tika. While the inhabitants of luxury apartments and villas in northern areas such as Kelapa Gading can, and have, moved into five-star hotels to temporarily escape floods, Maesaroh, whose husband works in a nearby fish market, said they have nowhere else to go.
“I’ve lived on this side of town since I first stepped foot in Jakarta,” she said. “I don’t think I want to start over somewhere else.”
The situation is even more dire for Tika, whose husband is unemployed, and whose parents live with them.
“My husband doesn’t work so this kiosk is our only way to earn money,” she said. “Otherwise, how could I put my children through school?”
Originally from Semarang, Central Java, Tika believes her future still lies in Jakarta, despite the frequent inundation by seawater. Almost without thinking, she said, she packs up all her wares from the kiosk when the tides come in and puts them in a safe, dry place inside her house. “It’s something we just have to deal with,” she said.
Unfortunately, her endless patience and stoicism won’t be enough to stop the tides from swamping North Jakarta. Brinkman said the central and city governments have developed a strategic plan that could be used to defend the city from the sea.
“One of the ideas is to create a small reservoir in the Jakarta Bay and build an off-shore dike,” he said.
He said the reservoir would be used to store water to prevent it from flooding the city. The water in the reservoir, he said, would then be pumped back into the sea using pumps erected on the dike.
The Public Works Ministry, the Jakarta administration and the National Development Planning Agency are assessing the plan, and Brinkman said they will meet in September to discuss how to make it happen.
Others, however, have a different perspective on the potential tidal calamity threatening the city. Andojo Wurjanto, a lecturer at Bandung Institute of Technology’s Ocean Engineering Department, notes that Jakarta has always had tides, even before it had people.
“Why are they flooding Jakarta now? That’s the question,” he said.
Andojo claims the answer is that rising sea levels caused by global warming are partially to blame for the tidal floods. “Add to that the descending ground levels, and water could easily inundate the city,” he said.
The World Bank’s Hahm emphatically refuses this suggestion. “It’s absolutely and categorically false,” he said. “Global warming has not even made sea levels increase anywhere in the world yet, so how can it have some localized effect? If that were the case, Singapore and Batam would be under water by now.”
For their part, the people of Muara Baru couldn’t care less about the scientific explanations of the tidal floods. Edi Junaedi, who is in his 40s, sells meatball soup from a cart in the neighborhood. His biggest fear is losing his car to floodwaters, as he did in 2007. “It was the worst one to ever come,” Edi said, standing behind his cart in front of a kiosk.
Edi’s wife and daughter live in East Java, but he said he chose to stay in Muara Baru because his friends did, too. After nine years in the city, Edi said he still has a hard time pushing his cart through the flooded streets.
Andojo said it would be impossible to relocate people living in Muara Baru, so the government must maintain dozens of special pumps across North Jakarta to keep even more water from flooding the streets. “People in Muara Baru are very dependent on the government because they cannot afford to pay for maintenance [of the pumps],” he said.
Andojo said the city has an obligation to make data on tidal flooding available to residents. However, Edi, Tika, and Maesaroh have never used a computer and are incapable of looking up tide forecasts on the Internet. “All we do is just look to the sea,” Tika said, pointing to the water visible from her house. “When the water level is high and the wind is strong, we have to start preparing for the worst.”
Fakhrurozi said a dam or sea wall must be constructed along the coast of North Jakarta to prevent the sea from inundating the city. “The problem is, we don’t have pumps installed in every river,” he said.
Fakhrurozi said the Jakarta administration allocates Rp 15 billion ($1.5 million) a year from the provincial budget to maintain pumps and floodgates across the city. “We manage the funds for 316 pumps and 34 floodgates,” he said, adding there is also an emergency fund of Rp 3 billion to repair broken equipment.
Fakhrurozi said the government built one sea wall along Jakarta’s northern coastline, and that it was made taller in 2007. But even that didn’t work. “In 1998, we expanded the sea wall by one meter but due to the sinking ground, the sea level reached 1.2 meters in 2007,” he explained. “It’s like we are playing catch-up with nature.”
Fakhrurozi said the seawall is now three meters high. According to Jakarta’s Public Works Department, the sea level off Jakarta Bay rose by four centimeters from 1998 to 2007.
Andojo said that aside from maintaining pumps and floodgates, the government must also think about alternative solutions to the flooding, such as dredging riverbeds across Jakarta. “There needs to be an integrated solution to the city’s flooding problem,” he said.
The flooding in Muara Baru worsens during the rainy season, when water can reach up to more than one meter.
Maesaroh said she can only hope that the government will repair and maintain the pumps. “Maybe they should try living here for a few days during the floods,” she said. “Then they will finally care about us.”