September 29, 2022

Commentary: Jakarta, the fastest sinking city in the world faces the biggest flooding challenge

5 min read

SINGAPORE: Every rainy season, neighbourhoods in Indonesia’s capital bear witness to major floods.

Over the years, however, the places affected have expanded and in some areas, have seen higher levels of flooding.

Jakarta has been hit again by flash floods of torrential rain on New Year’s eve.

This time, about 158 urban communities (kelurahan) in Jakarta experienced flooding, according to the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB). Besides Jakarta, the floods also hit surrounding areas, such as Bekasi, Tangerang, South Tangerang and Lebak.

The floods have caused electricity shutdowns and displacement of many. The death toll has reached at least 60 in the Greater Jakarta area and Lebak, according to the BNPB, owing to drowning, hypothermia and electrocution.

An elderly man uses an inflatable boat after floods hit his monastery in Jakarta
An elderly man uses an inflatable boat after floods hit his monastery in Jakarta. (Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto/Aprillio Akbar)

About 173,000 people from almost 40,000 households, were evacuated. Many offices and shops were forced to close. The domestic Halim Perdanakusuma Airport was forced to shut down.

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Flooding has been a perennial problem for Jakarta for several decades. Despite various measures to deal with this annual disaster, flooding in the city has become more frequent and severe.

In 2007, the flood affected more than 70 per cent of the capital, leaving more than 400,000 people displaced and killing more than 60 people.

It was the worst flood to hit Jakarta for decades. Water levels in some areas reached 4m and racked up an estimated economic loss of anywhere from 8.2 trillion rupiah (US$900 million) to 21 trillion rupiah. That year, insurance claims jumped to 1.2 trillion rupiah.

READ: Jakarta flood victims recount ordeal, experts warn worst is yet to come

Indonesian President Joko Widodo understands how serious flooding is. During his tenure as Jakarta Governor, in 2013, the city experienced extremely heavy rains and a tidal wave that reduced the capital to a giant pond, with water levels in several areas reaching 2 to 5m.

The flood damaged 97,000 houses, affected 250,000 people, and cost the city 4.4 trillion rupiah, according to World Bank estimates.

The city was hit three times by floods the following year in 2014, including in the typically dry month of May. 

Woman holds a child as they are evacuated by an inflatable boat, at an area affected by floods afte
Woman holds a child as they are evacuated by an inflatable boat, at an area affected by floods after heavy rains in Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan 2, 2020. (File photo:  REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)

More recently, greater Jakarta experienced more occurrences of flooding, with 46 cases of more than 15,000 people each time displaced in 2018.

The floods have worsened this time around, affecting not only suburban Jakarta but also downtown Jakarta where waters have reached 2 to 6m high. 

Residents are holding their breath. Jakarta is poised for further heavy rainfall until the monsoon ends in April.


There’s no doubt factors beyond human control including extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change, cyclical tidal waves and the seasonal monsoon have exacerbated flooding in Jakarta.

But human factors – including the destruction of the ecosystem due to deforestation, poor urban planning including the unchecked construction of settlements around the Ciliwung riverbank, and dismal garbage disposal choking up the riverbank and gutters around the city – have aggravated its effects.

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Moreover, Jakarta is the fastest sinking city in the world, sinking about 5 to 10cm annually, and up to 25cm a year in some places. Half of the city now sits below sea level.

The problem has been worsened by an overextraction of groundwater owing to the city’s rapid construction and a delay in the development of water and sewage systems.

The combination of these factors is amplifying the impact of freak floods each year.

Aerial picture of an area affected by floods, next to Ciliwung river in Jakarta
Aerial picture of an area affected by floods, next to Ciliwung river in Jakarta, Indonesia January 2 2020, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. (File photo: Antara Foto/Nova Wahyudi/via REUTERS)

Without an effective solution, experts have said the city could be entirely submerged by 2050. Economists estimate losses of 36 trillion rupiah in 2027, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Bandung Institute of Technology.


A comprehensive solution to this enormous challenge has thus far eluded central and regional authorities, who differ on how best to manage flooding in the city, which sits on the Ciliwung river facing the Java Sea.

A lack of consensus and poor coordination between government programmes have plagued the problem.

While Indonesian authorities have pressed on with works on the Ciawi and Sukamahi dams to reduce the upstream risk of floods in Jakarta, Bogor, Depok and Bekasi, efforts can be better focused on tackling the challenges downstream.

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Plans for a giant sea wall project, designed to protect the city from rising sea levels, have stalled for years.

A programme dredging the Ciliwung river to remove debris and garbage clogging up the waterway and relocate households that have settled on the riverbank constricting the river flow has been put on hold by Jakarta authorities, after land acquisition of surrounding areas met with residential resistance.

Despite strong financial and expert support from the World Bank for the project, of the total length of 33km, only about 16km have been dredged.

At the heart of these challenges is the politicisation of government policy and the lack of a strong mandate to push through difficult but necessary changes.

People gather near their houses at a slum area at the Ciliwung river bank at Jatinegara district in
People gather near their houses at a slum area at the Ciliwung river bank at Jatinegara district in Jakarta, Indonesia, December 29, 2016.(File photo: REUTERS/Beawiharta)

Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan has indicated he intends to take a different approach to tackle flooding, and had promised in his political campaign not to evict residents living on the riverbank.

He has thus put river dredging on hold, as his administrators figure out a plan that does not involve the resettlement of residents living around the area.

Finally, the habit of littering in Indonesia is another upstream habit that has contributed to the huge pile of rubbish in the Ciliwung river that deserves greater public education efforts.

Changing this poor habit is no panacea but will go some way to manage how much the Ciliwung river overflows.

Last year, Jokowi announced the relocation of the capital to East Kalimantan, to reduce the urban pressure on Jakarta. It seems the most sensible solution in the face of stasis.

However, it does not negate the fact that Jakarta needs an effective mitigation plan if it is to continue as the country’s financial and economic centre.

Siwage Dharma Negara is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.