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Indonesia – Jakarta slum dwellers battle rising waters

jakartaOn the edge of the North Jakarta Sea, a heap of broken wood is the only remains of a once-colourful wooden library on stilts, built just three months ago for children of a slum in the Cilincing area of the Indonesian capital.

The shoreline is new. With recent monsoons came storms, and with them tidal surges that ate into the coast and destroyed the library and 30 or so houses. This year’s surges were unusually high and strong, wrecking havoc between the end of January and early February.

“Fortunately, it came in the morning, not night, so people weren’t killed,” says Selamat, a 37-year-old minivan driver and community leader, adding that families whose houses were damaged by the water have moved in with relatives and life goes on as usual.

Lying next to a crematorium and facing the sea, this vast slum is a labyrinth of houses and narrow walkways. There are seven neighbourhoods and even Selamat, born and bred from central Javanese parents, doesn’t know how big it is.

He only knows that his neighbourhood, RW01, has 80 houses and 175 families in an area less than 5,000 square metres.

Living so close to the water, residents are used to regular flooding but with a poorly constructed drainage system and no barriers from the shoreline, floods bring more than just knee-deep dirty water. Selamat says skin problems, fever and respiratory infections are common.

In addition, when flooding occurs, the government blames the communities for building structures that obstruct the flow of water and for their improper – and sometimes non-existent – garbage disposal practices.

It is true to an extent at this slum, where the sea is a dumping ground for shells and other litter as the majority work as fishermen and shellfish peelers. Communal dustbins are also few and far between, as are public toilets and shower areas.

It would be churlish to blame the slum dwellers for the mess – since they only get 1,500 Rupiah (12 cents) for a kilogram of peeled shellfish, their goal is to peel as many as possible, not to take care of the waste. And when most residents earn less than $3 a day in a city where clean water can cost a dollar, sanitation is not at the top of anyone’s list.

Slum dwellers are a growing group of urban poor who have little or no access to affordable healthcare, education or economic opportunities. They usually do informal work, and as a result, they are highly vulnerable to disasters – mostly flooding and fire – that occur regularly.


In contrast with the bright skyscrapers and designer boutiques of central Jakarta, slums are dense neighbourhoods, usually illegal and mostly filled with makeshift shelters. Few know how many slums there are in the city of over 10 million people.

Mercy Corps, an aid agency that has been working with the urban poor since 1999, says fewer than 50 percent of Jakarta’s residents have access to tap water, and the poorest urban residents pay more for basic services like clean water, sanitation and solid waste removal.

“Over 200,000 to 300,000 people come to Jakarta every year to look for opportunities,” says Charles Ham, country director for Hope Worldwide Indonesia, a non-government organisation (NGO) working in Cilincing since September 2007. “They are unwanted residents of the city.”

Hope started with a Saturday Academy for poor slum children, whose attendance has quadrupled in a year to 350 students from 70. The school also trains mothers to make handbags from plastic bags.

The NGO is looking for ways to build a stronger sea barrier for the slum, making it more resilient to future tidal surges and at the same time educating residents about managing garbage.

Most dwellings in the slum are rickety huts. There are a few brick houses and even a couple of two-storey ones, but all that flies high in this slum are flags from political parties jostling for votes in the upcoming election.

Children play barefoot beside drains full of murky-green stagnant water, families cook evening meals on the streets and goats forage on top of massive garbage dumps.

“People only eat twice a day here,” Selamat says. And at least 10 percent of children in his neighbourhood are malnourished.

As Indonesia continues to urbanise at a rapid rate, more and more slums like this will emerge. According to the U.N. Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), there were nearly 21 million slum residents in Indonesia in 2001 – 23 percent of the total urban population.

Aid agencies say climate change and accompanying extreme weather patterns are making life even harder for them.

Sitting on the floor of the small house he shares with his wife and three children, Selamat says he’s worries the tidal surges are getting stronger.

“We’re looking at alternative incomes like fishermen becoming rickshaw drivers during January and February,” he says.

But why not just leave the place if it’s so dangerous?

He smiles and shakes his head. “It’s difficult to find somewhere to live, and I was born here,” he says. “I feel responsible for the people. As long as I can live here, I will.”

Source – Reuters

Categories: Indonesia
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