Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Come Hell or High Water

Well, I’ve had a damp and interesting week in the big durian. It started on Friday night of course with myself and Mr. Eric (my only housemate not to have conveniently gone away on holiday during this whole sorry episode) frantically bailing water out of the house as it poured through the living room ceiling. I guess we shouldn’t have skimped on the roofing a few months back when we only had the bedroom areas done. The rain eased eventually and we retired for the evening. Around 2AM there came the click and ominous silence that indicated the electricity going off.

The next morning there was barely time for me to shamble bleary eyed into the toilet before it all started again and my comrade and I resumed our undignified tableau in the drawing room. The noble Mr. Eric dealt with the buckets whilst I scooped water out of the door in my underpants with a Pizza Hut take away spaghetti dish.

In time the rain let up again and we could rest. The phone and electricity had been cut off but at least I could go to work. I looked over the front gate….Ah…Perhaps not then. We live at the end of a cul-de-sac which traverses a steep slope and the flood tide had risen right up to the house next door. 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 sullied our less than pristine floors but there seemed to be no way out for us. We were marooned with no power or telephone.

Just as I was having visions of Eric and I skinning wild cats and grilling 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.

So Jakarta floods again and I’m sure a significant proportion of my seven or eight readers, not to mention all of those poor sods who spent last weekend perched on the roofs of their houses, can relate similar stories to the one above. The front page of last Saturday’s edition of this paper featured a map of the capital’s flood prone areas but frankly it would have proved easier to draw up a map of areas not prone to flooding. When the next colossal floods hit five years hence such a map will probably consist solely of a picture of the top of Monas.

Mr. Sutiyoso has his maps and charts too, of course. Our esteemed city governor was a guest on a local light entertainment show last Sunday, explaining the floods and his plans for future heavy storms with the aid of some diagrams. Mr. Sutiyoso has already been Jakarta’s governor for almost ten years and will no doubt be replaced this year by a candidate of equal competence. This being the case, it would probably be better to judge Mr. S on his record as opposed to his promises and on this many will find him a woeful underachiever.

One news story I recall from the aftermath of the 2002 floods related how the city council had purchased a whole ten rubber dinghies as part of their emergency evacuation strategy. With over 100,000 people forced from their homes this weekend I make that 10,000 per dinghy. This is what you get though when your country is still run by soldiers instead of professional bureaucrats. Certainly, far too little attention has been paid to the environmental consequences of Jakarta’s endless construction boom and never-ending desire to turn a quick buck at the population’s expense.

Jakarta’s leaders, however, are up against some intransigent problems in their part time quest to keep the city’s collective trouser bottoms dry. Firstly, there is the general population’s propensity to chuck everything that they have no further use for into the nearest river. Many of the city’s waterways and flood gates are jammed solid with plastic, vastly reducing their capacities. Secondly, Jakarta’s location itself is far from ideal. A squelchy coastal delta bisected by six rivers full of mountain rain water is a pretty bad place for a capital city, especially one as densely populated, politically corrupt and impoverished as Jakarta is.

What a time Indonesia’s been having recently what with Tsunamis, landslides, earthquakes, droughts and floods. Mother Nature has turned on her Indonesian progeny where previously it has blessed this nation with bountiful fertility. Planting rice every few months is not going to be enough anymore and it’s an eerie coincidence that these catastrophic floods happened on the very same day that the latest UN climate change report was published. The report asserts the incontrovertible truth of human driven global warming and predicts a grim future for our species if immediate action is not forthcoming.

Perhaps our collective future will be something like the one predicted in the legendary Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos. In the book, the processes of Darwinian natural selection round upon our large human brains. Brains that have brought so much suffering and misery to the world are depicted as having little intrinsic survival value and as being an evolutionary dead end. In Vonnegut’s vision, homo sapiens’ brains thus start to shrink and their bodies grow seal like flippers as they return back to the blissful ignorance of the oceans in droves.

Far fetched? Perhaps. Just maybe though Jakarta’s councilors are an early embodiment of the truth of Vonnegut’s thesis. Perhaps the councilors’ descendants will take their flippers to the water during future Jakarta floods. And you thought regional devolution meant something to do with politics? Pass me a bucket of fish please.

Simon Pitchforth