Indonesia Expat
Featured Observations

Come Hell or High Water

Flood Jakarta

The wet season will soon be upon us unless climate change has already pushed Indonesia over the edge into a desiccated, cactus-filled future.

But let’s not open that can of worms just now, as possibly nothing can be done to stop it and, even worse, wind turbines give you cancer, that’s according to the Burger King-in-Chief at any rate.

Alas, pretty much every place I’ve ever lived in Jakarta has had some rain issues to keep me on my toes. To be honest, many have leaked like barges when subject to the kind of incessant precipitation that the Indonesian capital falls prey to; the type that turns houses into amphibious wildlife sanctuaries, half-hour journeys into two-hour odysseys, and a trip to the local market into mud-spattered trench warfare.

During the worst house flooding incident that I can recall, our roof could only take so much pounding before the flimsy hull of rusty, old, corrugated iron sheeting in question was finally breached. Unfortunately, however, the leak had sprung over the sofa in the lounge, right in front of the TV. The holiest and most sacred place imaginable, violated and dampened!

Indeed, I can clearly remember frantically bailing water out of the front door in my underpants with a Pizza Hut takeaway spaghetti dish as it poured through the living room ceiling. Thankfully, we were able to get the roof fixing boys in the next day to smoke shed loads of kretek, bang hammers with gusto, and initiate yet one more ad-hoc, patch-up job.

However, my luke-warm-affection/hate relationship with Jakarta stretches right back to the city’s worst modern-day floods of 2002, which saw much of the capital being submerged beneath brackish water and toxic sludge. And it’s against a backdrop of disasters like this that it pays to not only check the ceilings of any prospective property but also the flood potential of the surrounding area.

During that testing time, we awoke after the great biblical deluge to find both phone and electricity cut off. Stepping outside the front door, I discovered that living at the higher end of a cul-de-sac had presented us with a bit of a challenge. Thankfully, we had been spared the discomfort of knee-deep water in our pad but the poor residents at the bottom of the slope were submerged under five feet of it.

Yes, the floods may not have swept across our less than pristine floors, but it seemed that we were trapped, for the time being, not really fancying the interesting new skin diseases that would no doubt accompany any attempt to swim for it.

Just as I was having visions of having to skin wild cats and grill them on our garden barbecue for the next few weeks, something sailed into view at the bottom of the street. Shiver me timbers! The local ojeg (motorcycle taxi) boys had forsaken their Hondas for three empty oil barrels lashed to some planks of wood. We were saved!

Alas, during that testing time, one of my friends was not quite so lucky and returned to his house, in the damp zone of Grogol in the west of town, one evening after work to find that only the roof of his abode was visible, sticking up above the water like some Cubist sandbar. Everything he owned was ruined and I’m sure there were many such similar stories at the time.

Flooding will almost certainly be hitting the city once again soon, as it does every rainy season and, alas, a number of factors are exacerbating these Noah’s Ark style capers as Jakarta enters its terminal phase doom loop.

Endless exploitation of groundwater is causing the city to sink, collapsing like a flan in a cupboard, while the environmental consequences of Jakarta’s endless construction projects and never-ending desire to turn a quick buck at the population’s expense have been sadly neglected, meaning that water catchment areas are too few and far between.

The story of Noah’s Ark is a biblical classic, of course, however, non-Muslims among you may not be aware that Noah also features in the Islamic faith and is one of the religion’s five principal prophets. According to the story, Noah preached to his people but apparently only a few of them converted to Islam (a number traditionally thought to be 70). God thus told Noah to knock up the ark and commanded him to climb aboard before he smote the infidels with a big wave of water (which was presumably a tad cleaner than the rats’ urine and abandoned soft drink effluent that sloshes around Jakarta after a heavy storm).

Holy books aside, and at the other end of the literary spectrum, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman offers up a bold thought experiment, specifically a scientific look at what would happen to the planet and its great cities and feats of engineering if the entire human population of the world was suddenly, in fact instantaneously, removed from the equation, never to return. So, drawing on this fascinating tome, how would the structural integrity of your Batavian abode fare if the city’s millions of residents were to be suddenly abducted by a presumably extremely large spaceship.

Firstly, Jakarta’s houses and residencies would unravel themselves after just a few short years. Indonesian housing is often of poor quality with many seemingly being built out of breakfast cereal instead of bricks, and this would hasten its ultimate doom in the absence of any human intervention.

In Indonesia’s humid climate, rain and spores would quickly penetrate the city’s houses, turning hardboard to paper, rotting studs and floor joists, and generally munching them to bits. Ants, roaches, and even small mammals such as Jakarta’s huge army of rats would soon move in and complete the job. Moisture and rainwater would enter roofing panels around the nails, loosening their grip. Eventually, gravity would do its work, caving in joists and thus the city’s roofs would collapse.

An Indonesian house would probably last 20- or 30-years tops with no people around to look after it. However, even a reasonably diligent caretaker can find it hard to stop the rot in this country.

No doubt I’ll be stuffing my shoes full of newspaper on a regular basis again soon though, whilst I listen to Mahler’s Death in Venice theme and wait for cholera to close in on the capital. It’s a rum do alright, still, there’s always TV and beer, unless an indoor waterfall starts to obscure your view of the screen. Stay safe chaps.

See: Severe Flood Hits Bengkulu, 29 Dead, Thousands Evacuated

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