by Fitrian Ardiansyah, Erik Meijaard and Jessie Wells, published in The Jakarta Globe, 4 December 2013, Opinion.
Anyone living in Jakarta is more than familiar with the huge impacts of flooding, and the need for greater efforts for prevention and management. And yet, when it comes to the focus and support from the government for these actions, Jakarta may be more “fortunate” compared to other parts of the country that suffer from frequent floods, such as Kalimantan.
Heavy tropical rainfall causes flooding nearly everywhere in the Indonesian archipelago. According to the recent projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the coming decades Indonesia may receive less rainfall between July and October, but increased rains (and higher intensities) are expected during the wet season.
A combination of continuing environmental degradation (e.g. through deforestation and erosion), climate change that leads to sea level rise and extreme weather events, and poor infrastructure, has increased the urgency for Indonesia to address flooding issues not only through emergency response, but pro-actively through land use planning, mitigation and adaptation.
Some government agencies at the national and sub-national levels, including the Jakarta government, appear to be increasingly aware of the significant social and economic impacts that flooding can have, and are starting to take steps to reduce risks and mitigate impacts.
Others are yet to take action. In Kalimantan, for example, the government and key stakeholders need to make a dramatic shift away from their current business-as-usual approach to development and reactive approach to flooding, to avoid severe impacts that risk collapse of the island’s economic and humanitarian systems.
More than 20 major rivers flow through Kalimantan. Disturbances to the hydro-climatic systems, ecosystems and land use in the catchment areas of these rivers will have serious consequences for the island’s water supplies, transportation networks, and the capacity of its people to further develop their economies and moderate the impacts of droughts and fires.
With regard to flooding, a recent study titled Forests, Floods, People and Wildlife on Borneo showed that problems caused by flooding in Kalimantan are much larger than previously recognized, that flood risks are being exacerbated by trends in climate, land use and urbanization, and that urgent and forward-thinking actions are needed to address these issues.
This study, published by the United Nations Environment Program, estimates that between April 2010 and 2013, media-reported flood events inundated between 197,000 and 360,000 houses in Kalimantan, and displaced between 776,000 and 1.5 million people. The authors emphasize that these are conservative estimates, since many events go unreported, and independent surveys in 354 villages indicated that flooding occurred annually or even more frequently in at least 49 percent of villages in the island — with large social and economic impacts.
This study also found that 18 percent of villages experienced an increase in flood frequencies over the past 30 years. Increases in flood frequencies were primarily concentrated in the middle Mahakam area in East Kalimantan, the lower and middle reaches of the Barito, Kahayan, Sampit and Lamandau Rivers in South and Central Kalimantan, and the low-lying swamps around the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan. Reports of increasing flood frequencies were also strongly associated with increased turbidity and declines in water quality.
These are all areas with high human population densities and increasing agricultural developments, indicating that future economic impacts of flooding could be larger still.
One important aspect specifically explored in the study is the link between deforestation and changes in flood frequencies. The study concludes that it is not possible yet to understand the full picture of the complex relationships between land cover, topography and flooding, but the data indicate that increases in flooding were most likely in areas that have experienced more extensive deforestation for oil palm development, or severe degradation through logging and fires.
Such findings are important for Indonesia’s land use policies. Indonesia’s regulations (including Agriculture Ministry Decree No. 837 of 1980), have provided guidance for identifying lands that play an important role in watershed protection, based on considerations of slope, soil type and rainfall intensity.
However, vast areas of lands that meet these criteria have not been gazetted with any protection status such as protection forest (hutan lindung), but instead have been given out to industrial logging or other development activities incompatible with maintaining their hydrological functions. Such areas include large areas of Kalimantan’s forests on steep slopes or on deep peats, which continue to be converted despite the consequences.
The recent moratorium policy on forest and peat land conversion issued by the national government provides an opportunity for remaining areas to be protected, conserved and sustainably managed.
Taking up this opportunity will require governments at each level to effectively implement and monitor existing policies; to strengthen capacities for landscape planning that sustains the vital functions of watersheds, alongside other ecosystem benefits and economic developments; and to integrate land use planning with local preventive measures for flooding and adaptation to flooding regimes.
Otherwise, flooding impacts associated with deforestation and forest degradation in Kalimantan are only going to get worse.
In addition, rapid migration and urban expansion in the coastal and riverine lowlands affects both the likelihood of flood events (e.g. through altered hydrology and land subsidence), and amplifies the likely impacts of those events on larger and more concentrated populations of vulnerable people. Trends toward urbanization are likely to continue, and so an urgent and sustained effort is needed to reduce the impacts of urban and upstream development on flood risks, and to make settlements as resilient as possible to the risks that remain.
The government needs to act urgently. Agus Purnomo, a member of the Special Staff to the Indonesian President on Climate Change and the head of the secretariat of the National Council on Climate Change, states that many weather-related disasters in Indonesia, such as flooding and landslides, are having increasing impacts. He further argues that it is not only new policies that Indonesia requires, but also increased capacity, sufficient resources and adequate technology to address this issue.
Such comprehensive thinking, however, needs to be translated and supported at the local level, particularly in Kalimantan’s political agendas. Reading local newspapers, one wonders whether politicians in Kalimantan share similar concerns, since most discussions or actions related to flooding focus on mitigation through hard infrastructure (e.g. flood defenses), and appear to neglect efforts for hazard reduction or prevention (e.g. maintaining forested watersheds and improving infrastructure) or risk-reduction and adaptation.
It is time for government to put into effect its own, existing policies, including the government’s commitments to sustaining essential watershed functions, to reducing emissions from land use, and to maintaining at least 45 percent of Kalimantan’s land area as forest (Presidential Decree No. 3 of 2012).
To achieve this, the national government, through its Forestry Ministry, Environment Ministry and recently established REDD+ Agency (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, plus conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks), needs to enhance collaboration with local governments to enable land use planning that integrates the multiple functions of landscapes, including rigorously identifying which forests should be protected from development and which areas can be sustainably used or developed, and how.
The One Map Initiative, for example, can be used to guide the process on the ground so that needs for economic development can be met in concert with (rather than at a cost to) environmental protection and ecosystem services.
It is essential for the government and key stakeholders to show that the country’s commitments to addressing deforestation, climate change and disaster risks are concrete and meaningful. With this, as a society, we can hope that Indonesia will be able to beat the flooding challenge.
Fitrian Ardiansyah is a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University and program development director at Pelangi Indonesia.
Erik Meijaard is a long-term Indonesia-based conservation scientist leading the Borneo Futures initiative as a consultant for People and Nature Consulting International.
Jessie Wells is a postdoc at the Environmental Decisions Group, University of Queensland, researching hydrological ecosystem services in Kalimantan.