Both inside and outside Indonesia, people have been shocked by the scale of the Jakarta floods. As I write it’s a sunny day and waters are receding, leaving a total of three-quarters of the city affected by floodwater and over 25 people dead (upwards of 54 people, according to Indonesian news site Detik.com). Rain is widely expected to resume this week. If it does come, more homes will again be flooded and, presumably, more people will die. Seen as a big picture like this, it’s easy to see why the Jakarta floods have been taken around the world to be a major and exceptional event.

In Jakarta, however, floods are a regular occurence in the wet season. The big difference is that this flood, for the first time since 2002, hit the rich as well as the city’s poor. As the rain started pounding down last week, and news of flooding started coming in, the collective response was mostly indifferent. Since it was my first week in the city, Jakartans explained to me that flooding was simply what happened in the wet season. It was only when the flooding spread out of the poorer kampong and into richer suburbs that people in the city took notice. In a city in which many rich live in an air-conditioned and sedentary bubble-world, being ferried between home, work and shopping mall by taxi or chauffeur-driven car, floods only became a reality when they lapped out of the kampong and into their homes.

Jakarta is a city of massive inequality, and this has carried on to evacuation and relief efforts. While many rich Jakartans have found refuge in five-star hotels in the city centre, poor from adjacent neighbourhoods still wait for relief. One of the few feel-good stories to come out of the floods has been that of a Swedish diplomat in the wealthy Kemang area who has taken around 30 families into his home. But like any feel-good story, we can assume that this is the exception, not the rule.

The effect of the floods on the city as a whole, and in turn on its rich, will also mean bad news for poor Jakartans living on the city’s riverbanks. The government has announced a relocation program for people living along the banks of the Ciliwung River, whose slum houses and garbage have been blamed for blocking waterways and worsening the flood. The government’s Manpower and Transmigration Minister insists that the relocation will not reflect the callousness of those carried out under Soeharto’s New Order regime, saying the slum-dwellers will be relocated to 2.5 hectare plots outside of the city, given a one-year living allowance, and taught farming and animal breeding.

Meanwhile, Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso, who is widely maligned for failing to anticipate the scale of the floods, refuses to accept responsibility for the disaster, and will most likely see out the remaining months of his term before Jakartans – for the first time – directly elect their Governor later this year.

Peter Fray

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