After Disaster, Governor Faced with Challenge of Keeping Jakarta Dry

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JAKARTA, Indonesia -- At the Marunda housing projects in North Jakarta, weeds push up through cracks in concrete foundations and grimy facades beg for paint. The rent-subsidized apartments have little access to public transportation, and drainage ditches that ring each building smell of sewage.

It seems unlikely that people would line up to live here. But since last month, when the worst flooding in six years hit Jakarta, killing at least 40 people and displacing tens of thousands, occupancy at Marunda has jumped.

"We have piped water; it's safe and clean," said Sarif Hidayat, a 28-year-old fisherman from a flood-prone area the government has slated for a river-dredging project. "The government said, 'Just try it, the first two months are free.' If we don't like it, we can leave."

Marunda has been plagued by problems since the government began building it in 2006 to provide alternative housing for people living in Jakarta's slums. Now it is undergoing upgrades to encourage new residents to stay on and has become a showcase for how the city's new leaders -- Gov. Joko Widodo and his deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who took office last October -- are responding to the disaster.

The flooding has exposed persistent problems of inadequate infrastructure and unabated growth in the capital of one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. It has also provided a test of Mr. Joko, whose record of achievement as a mayor in Central Java and campaign promises of a "new Jakarta" raised high expectations.

Jakarta is a low-lying city surrounded by mountains and subject to annual monsoons. Trash clogs drainage systems, and developers often ignore building codes that require water-absorption wells. Poor maintenance of existing flood defenses, deforestation that increases water runoff and subsidence caused by overdevelopment also make it increasingly vulnerable to flooding.

Mr. Joko's challenge, analysts say, will be finding solutions to problems that previous administrations failed to address because of corruption or political infighting. Additionally, despite government promises to increase spending on infrastructure in recent years, projects have been held up by problems with land acquisition or by public resistance.

Past efforts to relocate riverside communities to allow for dredging, for instance, have met fierce opposition from residents who say a move would be costly and take them far away from their workplaces.

"Simple efforts in dredging the canals that exist would reduce the incidents of flooding by 40 percent," said Stefan G. Koeberle, country director for Indonesia at the World Bank.

But even seemingly simple projects can fall victim to a mix of bureaucracy and foot-dragging.

"Essentially, these are very complex undertakings in a dense urban environment with big social, environmental and economic consequences," Mr. Koeberle said.

Mr. Joko says he is not fazed. "My focus is flooding, traffic and improving public spaces," he said after listening to a proposal for a $725 million monorail project. "I am full of hope and optimism. These problems can be settled."

Already there are signs of progress. In April, with assistance from the World Bank, the city will begin a $189 million flood-mitigation dredging project aimed at reducing sedimentary buildup caused by poor maintenance and solid waste management.

In the meantime Mr. Joko has been meeting with riverside residents, trying to persuade them to move out. Last Thursday, he replaced 20 senior officials, including the head of the public works agency, to help shake up the city's sluggish bureaucracy. Mr. Basuki, his deputy, has promised riverside communities subsidized apartments like those in Marunda and has helped start up water taxis to provide transportation along the city's northern coast.

The team is relying on a populist approach that many credit with having helped them win the election last September. In a country where politicians often come from a tight-knit elite or the military establishment that once controlled the country, Mr. Joko, widely known as Jokowi, has convinced many Jakartans that he is the sort of leader who cares what they think.

"Listening to people's concerns, that's a good start," said Jonatan Lassa, a fellow at the Institute of Resource Governance and Social Change, an Indonesian research organization that has published several reports on Jakarta's vulnerability to flooding. "The government has to tackle the social problems, not just the technical ones, and for that we have some hope with Jokowi."

In Surakarta, the midsize city where Mr. Joko was mayor before becoming Jakarta's governor, community organizers say his soft-spoken approach helped him win over opponents of a relocation project involving more than 1,000 households.

His work creating green space and upgrading traditional markets there led the City Mayors Foundation, an international research institute, to rank him third on its list of the world's best mayors in 2012.

But even Mr. Joko's supporters in Surakarta wonder if he is capable of tackling the problems of a much larger, more economically important megalopolis.

"Jakarta is crazy," said Ahmad Rifai, executive director of Solo Kota Kita, an organization in Surakarta that encourages residents to interact with local officials on city planning. "We need more than just one person to change it."

Change is desperately needed, however, urban planners say, not only to make Jakarta more livable, but to ensure the future of a country that registered economic growth of 6.2 percent last year.

Other developing countries struggle with flooding. In 2011, major floods hit Thailand, setting off panic among investors. Businesspeople in Jakarta say they worry the same thing could happen.

"It's really about political will," said Marco Kusumawijaya, director of the Rujak Center for Urban Studies, a nongovernmental organization. "Tokyo subsided until the 1960s, but they managed to stop it. Jokowi has the capacity to do the same."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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