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Jakarta floods: Nature is fighting back

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries.

Published time: January 30, 2014 15:09
Photo by Andre Vltchek

Indonesia is a disaster in the making, or as some experts often put it, a time bomb. But it is not just a one-time explosive, but a device that goes off regularly.

Nature is angry, it is furious. Water is pouring from the skies once again, and millions of people are in agony; many are now dying – in the capital city of Jakarta, as well as in so many small villages on remote islands of this sprawling and unfortunate archipelago.

Tragedies occur here with deadly regularity. And there is nothing mystical or supernatural about what is taking place, if one is at least ordinarily informed and educated. Everything here is scientifically, economically and politically explicable. But since the genocidal fascist massacres that took lives or freedom of almost all great Indonesian thinkers in 1965-66, both science and rationale have definitely had a great influence on the nation.

Now, at the end of January 2014, huge areas of Jakarta are under water. Debris is floating on the surface of the filthy rivers. Carcasses of animals are inflated. There are roofs and doors and garbage all over.

Over-excited, hysterical announcers of local radio stations are screaming to ether in unbelievable high-pitched voices: ‘Banjir lagi!’ (the floods again!)

No relief

It is all Kafkaesque: relief posts are empty, while people all over the inundated areas complain that there is hardly any help from the government. Or, when there is help, it is distributed inflexibly and randomly. One has to belong to an exact administrative area, or to a certain group.

Relief agencies and “posts” are almost exclusively self-promoting. Be they Muslim organizations, police, or even the most notorious military commandos responsible for massacres all over the archipelago. They are all boasting their logos and “coats of arms.”

But look closely, for instance, at the area of Kampung Melayu that is hard-hit this year, and you will see police and military playing games on empty beds, or sleeping “relief workers” on cots belonging to various religious organizations.

Inflatable boats are resting against the walls. Ambulances are idle, parked all over the place, with drivers gone missing.

Photo by Andre Vltchek

Police officer Nurasid, from Kampung Melayu Command Post, explained:

“It has been three weeks since police headquarters deployed us here. We do shifts, in the morning 20 people, and in the evening 10. This year’s floods are worse than those that hit Jakarta in 2013. We evacuated some people from the areas of Kg Melayu Besar and Gudang Peluru… We get no extra pay for this.”

They get regular pay, of course, as anywhere else in the world. But they may not consider such rewards high enough. The entire scenario resembles similar “relief operations” in Sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or in Kenya, one of the places where I am based.

In the shelter, several men, women and children are resting on cots and straw matrasses. This group is well fed and taken care of. I ask randomly one of the women where she comes from. Proudly, she replies:

“My name is Esti, and I am daughter of the village chief, here at Kr. Melayu.”

“Are there people seeking shelter under the bridge, as in 2013?” I ask.

“No,” the group of women begins, waving their hands. “This year people are well taken care of.”

It is a lie, of course. We drive towards the flyover, just a few hundred meters from the shelter. Under the flyover, dozens of desperate people are parked on the grass, on dirt or makeshift mats. They are in terrible condition, surrounded by domestic animals, plastic bags, bundles and screaming children.

Photo by Andre Vltchek

Mr. Ilyas is from Kg. Melayu Kecil. He is so desperate; he does not hesitate to give his name, testimony and even his mobile number:

“We have been here for 10 days and except for some food, there is not much help. We were supposed to go to At Tahiriyah Mosque, but they said they are overburdened there. Other mosques refused to let us in, saying that we are ‘najis.’ There are 200 of us here. Not far from here is a police canteen, but they do not share food with us; they only feed their own men.”

‘Najis’ means filthy, dirty.

There are thousands of desperate people all over the capital, and their number is growing.

Last year, when I covered the Jakarta floods in depth, I stumbled on entire groups of politicians, public figures, police officers and military men, posing in front of desperate victims, promoting themselves on Twitter and Facebook. One group of “haves” even “hired” a huge fire truck, and then began driving it around, filming and photographing its “relief effort,” consisting of distributing meager food supplies.

Ruined nature and cities

Unbridled corruption, both moral and financial, has brought Indonesia virtually to a standstill. Infrastructure has collapsed, and there are almost no public works or any interest to prevent disasters or help the victims.

The country’s economy (loudly praised by Western media and political regimes) mainly consists of unbridled plundering of natural resources, from occupied and devastated Papua, to Aceh at the other geographic extreme, as well as high commodity prices on global markets.

The desire for enrichment in Indonesia is often absolutely grotesque, a result of pro-market indoctrination over the decades. As I clearly witnessed after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, a horrendous disaster that took around 250,000 human lives, police and the army were diverting money away from NGOs, who were distributing drinking water to desperate survivors, and destroying plastic water deposits if the bribes were not paid.

Now, everything in Indonesia seems to be ruined: the nature is, and the cities are. Entire huge islands are deforested; some of them are as gigantic as Sumatra and Kalimantan. Black chemicals cover eerie and grotesque stumps, in those places where once, native trees stood tall and proud. Palm oil plantations are all over: they are cheap to create and easy to maintain, while yields are high. But to create them, all native vegetation has to be destroyed.

Greenpeace has listed Indonesia in the Guinness Book of Records as the nation that destroys its rain forests with greater speed than any other country on earth.

Rivers are clogged, polluted and impossible to navigate. Several Indonesian institutions had declared the Citarum River, passing near Jakarta, as the most polluted waterway anywhere in the world.

How bad can it get in the future? Can it really get any worse than it is now?

It can, of course. In Indonesia, anything can happen. It is designated (mainly by Western governments and corporation that are already plundering the country for decades) as a “capitalist paradise” and a future leader of Southeast Asia. Indonesia is also called the “largest Southeast Asian economy.” Well, not on a per capita basis, just in total numbers. Naturally, with 247 million officially recognized citizens (and 300 million claimed by some independent statisticians), its crippled tiny-per-capita economy is still much bigger than that of extremely rich but geographically tiny Singapore.

Photo by Andre Vltchek

Here, human beings have turned against Mother Nature, with tremendous irrational wrath and unpardonable spite, killing not only fauna, but also all creatures that emerged on their way, big as well as tiny. Why? Simply because nature is not bringing any great short-term profits and confused animals are once in a while fighting back when their territory is sprayed by chemicals or divided by barbed wires.

Just a few days ago I visited “the cruelest zoo on earth,” according to both local and international press; the zoo in the city of Surabaya.

While still in Japan, while working on my film about Okinawa, I read in both Indonesian and Japanese press online about several grisly murders, of an African lion that was hanged in his cage, of a mountain goat, and of other creatures.

Our own eyes soon confirmed what we read. After we entered the zoo, we saw the rotting carcass of a tiny kitten, doubled, hanging from the wall. And nearby, several local photographers were crawling around the cage inhabited by several gloomy-looking mountain goats.

“One just died yesterday… Yet another casualty,” explained one of the newsmen, laconically.

'Anti-people' society

Nature periodically strikes back. Terrible landslides, the results of logging and the destruction of original vegetation, are killing hundreds of people, often burying entire villages. Tsunamis devastate entire badly constructed (or constructed in totally the wrong places) neighborhoods of Indonesian cities and towns.

But floods are the most publicized events, as they occur in the capital and many other major cities of the country, and therefore they are impossible to ignore.

Professor Muslim Muin from prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) explained that one cannot blame what is happening now in Jakarta simply on the “ocean,” or on global warming. He was obviously referring to the recent statements of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was trying to blame the present situation in the capital solely on climate change.

“High and low tides of the ocean are normal right now, nothing extraordinary. The problem is that drainage system cannot cope with amount of water passing through it. And the same can be said about the rivers and channels of the capital,” Muin said.

The rivers are clogged with garbage and new, so-called flood channels, are not yet finished or well connected, to prevent devastation.

“It is said that the rain did not reach its maximum level, yet,” Muin said. “Then why are we having floods? The situation simply demonstrates that the water in Jakarta is not flowing well, and Jakarta administration once again mismanaged things… They should have performed hydrodynamic simulations. Then they would learn how wide and deep should be drainage system, and how powerful should be the pumps.”

Photo by Andre Vltchek

The problem is that public works are never funded or implemented, if they are really “public,” meaning non-profit, serving Indonesian society. After the US-sponsored the 1965 military-religious coup, Indonesia became perhaps the most “shamelessly capitalist,” profit-oriented and “anti-people” society on earth. Its infrastructure, from roads, railroads and airports to communications, (but also waste processing system and clean water supply) are all in a state of shambles, often below the level of those in Bangladesh or sub-Saharan Africa.

Flood channels and drainage systems are no exception. Flood prevention and control bring no “profits,” while annual floods actually give jobs to hundreds and thousands in the private construction companies.

It is the same logic as with the public transportation: as I was told two years ago by a leading Indonesian businessman who is presently living abroad: “Jakarta or any major Indonesian city will never build decent public transportation. The car lobby and other businesses will simply never allow it. And so the cities such as Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan and Makassar are choking in almost total traffic jams, with no metro or urban rail systems, trams or monorails.“

In Indonesia, there is simply no mechanism to force the political and economic regime of the country to serve the people. And a majority of the citizens simply give up trying. Everything is abandoned to the “market.” But market does not seem to care much about the people.

And so the ideas of humanism are fully abandoned here. Not even a hint that the economy is here to build the nation and to serve the people; that all that is done in the country should have only one basic goal and purpose: to improve the standard of living, and quality of life of its citizens.

This year 23 people died – victims of floods in the capital alone. This is an estimate, of course. Tens of thousands have become refugees. Hundreds of thousands will have to repair their houses. Most of them have no funds for such repairs, but they will have to find a way, so those few owners of the businesses could flourish. So the elites can become even richer, and send their offspring to even more expensive schools abroad. So they can buy even more Range Rovers (a great car for the floods) and even fancier condominiums in Australia, Singapore and the United States.

All other Indonesian cities are unlivable as well. Arguably, Medan and Surabaya are even worse than Jakarta. But who cares? All members of Indonesian elites have “second homes” or a “second country” somewhere outside this devastated archipelago. Indonesia for them is only good for plundering. And it shows. And there is nothing people can do anymore, it seems.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Comments (9)

 

Ricky Namara 05.02.2014 03:55

(continuing from before)

Before I go on a rant, I'll just end it by saying one more thing: these people only seem to remember that the government existed when they wanted something. Flood or other disasters, and they'll start weeping bloody tears for someone to take pity on them. But when everything's fine, nobody pays their taxes. Nobody votes. Nobody gives a flying pluperfect pie about the city, much less the nation. So, let me play the devil's advocate and say when these people who clogged the rivers and contribute to the problem start screaming "Save us!", I'll be the first to whisper "No."

 

Ricky Namara 05.02.2014 03:45

(continuing from before)

Yes, the government may be so corrupt that it is pointless to rely on them anymore. But don't forget that the people who contributed to this problem are also so stupid they refused to educate themselves. It's a devil's circle of ignorance, and the best anyone can hope for is to conduct your business elsewhere.

Also, I call shenanigans on Surabaya being called "even worse than Jakarta". By leaps and bounds, Surabaya is much, MUCH better than Jakarta, at the very least the traffic won't kill your patience. By that standard alone, Surabaya is a frickin' PARADISE compared to Jakarta!

 

Ricky Namara 05.02.2014 03:34

There is a flipside: the so-called refugees are not educated enough to know what's best not just for them, but everyone in the city. They came in droves from other regions and then settled right there by the riverbanks, dumped all of their trash into the river and refuses to be told otherwise. Houses are on what should've been a water reservoir and narrowed the Ciliwung River by 50% of its original width and thwart every single effort to discourage them to do something so psychotic. And then when something like this happens, they all scream "SAVE US! WE'RE THE VICTIM HERE!" You tell me what's wrong with this picture!

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