Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Mohammad Mahfud MD, has been criticized sharply for comparing the novel coronavirus to a wife in an attempt to allay public concerns about easing COVID-19 restrictions.
The Indonesian government is preparing to lift partial lockdowns in parts of the country in early June and adopt what it calls ‘the new normal’.
“Are we going to be holed up forever? We can adjust to the situation while still paying attention to our health,” Mahfud said in a video posted on YouTube on Wednesday.
“The other day I got a meme from my colleague Luhut Pandjaitan that says: Corona is like your wife. Initially you tried to control it, then you realize that you can’t. Then you learn to live with it,” he said in English.
Pandjaitan is the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment.
The off-the-cuff remarks drew ire from women’s rights groups and other Indonesians online.
“Not only does the statement reflect the incompetence of the government in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, it also demonstrates the sexist and misogynistic attitudes of public officials,” Women’s Solidarity Society said in a statement.
“Jokes that objectify women will only normalize the culture of violence against women,” it said.
Indonesians on social media joined the chorus of criticism.
“A man who marries a woman with the intention to control her is horrifying. Comparing a woman to a virus is an insult to the dignity of women,” a Twitter user named Deslina wrote.
Some Indonesians have expressed concerns about the plan to reopen the economy at a time when the curve appears to have not flattened.
The government is deploying 340,000 security personnel in four provinces – Jakarta, West Java, West Sumatra and Gorontalo – to enforce “the new normal,” Armed Forces chief Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto.
They have been tasked with ensuring the public observe health guidelines prescribed by the government, including wearing masks and respecting social distancing.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Indonesia rose to 23,851 on Wednesday, an increase of 686 from the previous day.
An additional 55 deaths brought the number of fatalities to 1,473.
Indonesia’s family planning agency on Thursday urged couples to delay pregnancies after estimates showed that 10 percent of reproductive couples in the fourth most-populous country had abandoned contraception as a result of restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
The lack of access to contraceptives could result in 420,000 unplanned pregnancies, sparking fears of a COVID-19 baby boom, said Hasto Wardoyo, the head of the National Population and Family Planning Agency (BKKBN).
“With an additional 420,000 births next year, population growth in Indonesia could surge dramatically,” he said. “If you plan to get pregnant, now is not the right time.”
The government estimates that about 15 percent of 3 million couples who stopped using contraception between March and April could end up pregnant, Hasto said, adding that 95 percent of contraceptive users in Indonesia are women.
Hasto said people had been reluctant to visit health clinics because of fears they would contract COVID-19, while many health workers have suspended their practices to avoid contact with other people.
Government health workers assisted by military personnel are going door-to-door to provide contraceptives and other family planning services, along with personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical personnel in the field of reproductive health, he said.
Health officials in Tasikmalaya, a regency in West Java province, reported earlier this month that the pregnancy rate doubled to more than 3,200 in the January-to-March period compared to last year.
“The April-to-May period may see another rise,” said Uus Supangat, chief of the Tasikmalaya health office, according to Kumparan.com online news portal.
Nearly 5 million babies are born every year in Indonesia and about 28 million couples were using contraception last year, according to government data.
Indonesia recorded 973 COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the largest single-day rise so far, taking the total to 20,162. East Java province saw the highest daily increase on Thursday, 502, COVID-19 task force spokesman Achmad Yurianto said.
Globally, more than 5 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and nearly 330,000 have died as of Thursday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian Obstetrics and Gynecology Association (POGI) has urged couples planning pregnancy to postpone visits to clinics until the pandemic is under control as health workers are focusing their attention on providing services to expectant women to prevent COVID-19-related complications.
“Even though there’s no evidence yet that the fetus can be infected by COVID-19, we still have to take precautions,” said Budi Wiweko, POGI’s deputy secretary general.
“We have to avoid caesarian delivery as much as possible,” he said.
Angga Sisca Rahadian, a researcher with the Population Research Center at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said the predicted 420,000 additional births in 2021 would make it harder for Indonesia to achieve its total fertility rate target of 2.1. The rate refers to the average number of children a woman would have if she survives all reproductive years.
Indonesia’s total fertility rate is 2.4, according to a 2017 demographic and health survey.
“With the increase in pregnancy rates during the pandemic, it will certainly affect the growth rate,” Angga said, referring to population growth.
Angga said the government must ensure that women who are pregnant during the pandemic are given maternity care.
“These are unplanned pregnancies and the government has to find ways to keep pregnant women well-nourished to prevent complications,” she said.
Infant mortality rate in Indonesia is 24 per 1,000 live births, while under-5 mortality rate is 32 per 1,000 live births, far beyond the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target of 70 per 100,000 live births, according to the 2017 demographic survey.
Task force spokesman Yurianto attributed the jump in single-day COVID-19 cases in Indonesia to increased testing and the failure to observe social distancing measures.
He warned that the country could see an increase in infections because of higher mobility during the holy month of Ramadan culminating in the Eid al-Fitr festival, which falls on Sunday.
Traffic in the greater Jakarta region has been busier in recent days ahead of Eid al-Fitr, while airports, sea ports and markets have also started to reopen.
The head of the COVID-19 task force’s team of experts, Wiku Adisasmito, said public perception that travel restrictions had been relaxed could also be a factor.
“It could be due to increased testing, or due to the lack of discipline in observing health protocols,” he said.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Monday said the government would not ease restrictions amid criticism that the government is silently relaxing measures to curb the spread the virus to keep the economy running.
Speculation that the government is taking steps toward reopening the economy emerged last week after Wiku said residents 45 and younger could be allowed to return to work.
He said West Java has been a bright spot in the fight against COVID-19 for its success in flattening the curve.
“Hopefully other provinces can catch up,” he said.
East Java Deputy Gov. Emil Dardak told local television that the provincial government had tested not only people who showed symptoms of COVID-19, but those who were at risk, resulting in the high number of daily cases.
The bright red, yellow and green temple-like exterior of the Lautze Mosque in Jakarta’s Chinatown could be mistaken for a Chinese home.
However, the distinctive structure of the mosque reaffirms its role as a good example of how Indonesians of Chinese descent blended in with their predominantly indigenous Muslim neighbors.
“Many mistook the mosque for a Chinese temple, so two years ago, we put up signs bearing the name of the mosque,” Imam Naga Kunadi said.
The three-story mosque is part of a row of buildings in a busy trading area along Lautze Street, after which the mosque is named, in Central Jakarta. Because of its location, the mosque only opens during the day.
“In Ramadan, we usually open every Saturday, starting at Asr time, because we have a specific type of congregation — many of the members live far from the mosque. We would provide iftar and hold taraweeh prayers. But we cannot do that this year as we have to close due to the large-scale social restrictions in this time of coronavirus,” Kunadi said.
Kunadi, whose Chinese name is Qiu Xue Long, said the mosque would still operate in a subdued manner for alms collection and distribution, or to assist those wishing to convert to Islam, and that mosque officials would act in compliance with social distancing measures.
The mosque was established in 1991 by the Haji Abdul Karim Oei Foundation, named after a Chinese-Indonesian Muslim nationalist, the late Abdul Karim Oei Tjeng Hien.
It aimed to facilitate the assimilation of the ethnic Chinese community and indigenous Muslims, especially in cases where ethnic Chinese people wished to embrace Islam.
“We understand the specific needs of Chinese mualaf (convert). We understand what they go through because we’ve experienced it before,” said Kunadi, who converted to Islam in 2002.
The original mosque occupied a shophouse and, a few years later was expanded after acquiring an adjacent building to accommodate 300 congregation members.
“The Chinese-style exterior is also to show that we still maintain our Chinese heritage even though we converted to Islam,” Kunadi said.
Muhammad Ali Karim Oei, son of Oei Sr., said the facade was designed to make the mosque more welcoming for ethnic Chinese people wishing to come inside and ask about Islam.
“They are free to ask anything and learn about Islam here, even some burning questions they may be reluctant to ask in other mosques. It is another reason we chose the name Lautze — a Chinese word for teacher,” Oei Jr. said.
The mosque has seen more than 1,000 Chinese-Indonesians embrace Islam. In addition to making an ethnic Chinese person part of the country’s Muslim majority, it also makes the person a double minority for being a Muslim minority in an already small ethnic group.
Its reputation as a nonjudgmental place for Chinese-Indonesians who want to study Islam, and for the new converts, as well as other Chinese Muslims to observe the faith, led to the establishment of Lautze Mosque 2 in Bandung, West Java in 1997.
“There was a need for a mosque that accommodates the growing number of Chinese-Indonesian Muslims in the city. They felt like there was still a gap when they pray in regular mosques. People would look at them differently, even though they are already part of the Muslim brethren,” Hernawan Mahfudz, an official from Lautze Mosque 2 Foundation told Arab News.
To make them feel more at home, congregation members are encouraged to address each other as “koko” and “cici,” the Chinese words for brother and sister.
Like its Jakarta predecessor, the mosque maintains the Chinese-style facade accentuated by a row of Chinese red lanterns. The ground floor serves as the prayer hall for 200 people while the upper floor serves as a shelter for the mualafs who might be experiencing hardship as a result of their conversion.
Despite the mosque closures, Mahfudz said they would still keep the Ramadan tradition alive even without the communal gatherings.
“We still provide iftar meals every day but instead of having them at the mosque, we distribute the meals directly to the beneficiaries. We also conduct group Qur’an recitations and sermons using videoconferencing applications,” he said.
Under normal circumstances, the small mosque on the outskirts of Jakarta constructed from 1,208 used plastic bottle crates would have been abuzz with the sound of people praying and reciting the Quran during Ramadan.
It would be the first Ramadan since the 42-meter-square mosque was built in late 2019, following the establishment of Kebun Ide (Garden of Ideas) — a restaurant with a back-to-nature theme — which houses the facility.
The coronavirus pandemic might have prevented communal prayers, but the mosque’s plastic recycling design is still attracting attention.
“Since we have this prayer room, many residents around here have expressed interests to organize gatherings such as group Quran recitations there. But unfortunately, we cannot do that now as we have to close the restaurant due to social distancing rules,” Handoko Hendroyono, the owner of Kebun Ide, told Arab News.
The pavilion, named Kotakrat, was initially constructed to be part of a local architectural exhibition in Bintaro township.
“The project concept was good because it reused discarded material, and there was a need for a praying room for our guests and employees, so I agreed to have the Kotakrat to be constructed in our space. Now we have a very good place to pray. Many visitors didn’t realize that it is actually a prayer room,” he added.
Designed and constructed by architect firm PSA Studio, Kotakrat is part of an architectural project to build a multi-purpose “space of kindness” to meet the community’s social needs.
“This space of kindness can be in the form of a kiosk, place of worship, shelter, bus stop, security post, and many other places. It is built from plastic crates that we can easily find and install to form a space for various architectural shapes and purposes. The crates can be arranged to function as a roof, a partition, and a wall,” Ario Wirastomo, a principal architect in the firm, told Arab News.
This construction used 1,208 used plastic bottle crates to form the prayer room’s walls and roof, and benches for the visitors to remove their shoes before entering.
It also provides water faucets for congregants to perform ablutions.
The architects used bolts to join the crates. They also used a polycarbonate roof supported by hollow metal frames.
The mosque has two separate entrances for men and women, although it does not separate men and women in the 8.64-meter-square praying space that can accommodate three rows of nine worshippers. The first row is for the imam, while the other two rows are for men and women respectively.
“As a prayer room is a public place that Muslims would look for to perform the five daily prayers everywhere they go, we expect the Kotakrat space would be durable and functional for a long time,” Wirastomo said.
Despite reusing discarded material, Wirastomo said he could not claim this project was environmentally friendly but he hoped people would be more aware of recycling waste.
Indonesia is one of the world’s top plastic waste producers with 5.05 million tonnes of plastic rubbish generated annually, out of which 81 percent is mismanaged and contributes 10 percent to the global total of mismanaged plastic waste. Our World In Data projected that Indonesia would contribute almost 11 percent of global mismanaged plastic waste by 2025.
The country’s chief maritime affairs and investment minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, recently said that Indonesia has come up with an action plan that aims to reduce 70 percent of its plastic pollution by 2025, hoping to be free of plastic waste by 2040.
Indonesia extended the partial lockdown of its second-largest city Surabaya and the two neighbouring administrative regencies of Sidoarjo and Gresik, in East Java province, as new infections and deaths spiked at the weekend.
East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa said on Sunday that the decision was taken following a review of the Covid-19 growth rate and consultations with epidemiologists.
“After evaluation on the first phase of enforcing the large-scale social restriction, we agreed to extend the restrictions in Surabaya, Gresik and Sidoarjo,” Parawansa said in a statement.
The first phase of partial lockdown in the three regions had been set to end on May 11. It is now due to expire on May 25.
The governor said authorities would more strictly enforce the anti-virus restrictions – including stringent social distancing measures and bans on events and other social gatherings – in place during this second phase.
Achmad Yurianto, the spokesman for the national Covid-19 task force, said on Sunday that the national caseload in Indonesia rose to 14,032 with 387 new confirmed infections.
Out of the total national tally, 1,502 are in East Java where the death toll rose to 143 and 83 new cases were recorded, surpassing West Java as the second-most infected province after Jakarta, where more than 5,000 infections were found.
East Java found new clusters of Covid-19 cases in the past two weeks, including in a Surabaya plant owned by Indonesia’s largest tobacco company, HM Sampoerna, where two workers died of infection and dozens of others tested positive.
Parawansa also said the provincial administration is seeking approval from the Health Ministry to impose the large-scale social restrictions in the greater Malang area, which consists of Malang and Batu municipalities and Malang regency, after assessment from epidemiologists at Airlangga University showed new infection cases have spiked in the area.
During the fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this week, Muslims in this mostly Muslim country are accustomed to spending more time at mosques, iftar gatherings with friends and other, more casual social mores.
But this year, with more deaths from COVID-19 than any Asian country outside China, many in Indonesia will not be able to attend in-person evening prayers, merry breaking of fasts at day’s end or travel home at the end of the holy month to celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr, as they keep to themselves to help curb the spread of the disease.
Authorities in the greater Jakarta region, home to 30 million people — and across the nation that is home to 12% of the world’s Muslims have ordered places of worship, schools and nonessential businesses to close temporarily.
The Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, has followed with a fatwa, or clerical ruling, that calls on Muslims not to perform Friday prayers and other congregation activities in mosques during the pandemic, instead urging the faithful to conduct Ramadan evening prayers at home.
“Performing prayers at home won’t reduce the value of our devotion to God,” said Asrorun Ni’am, secretary of MUI’s fatwa commission, last week. “Just staying at home to avoid spreading the virus or being exposed to the virus is considered a religious duty at a time like this.”
Ni’am said the pandemic was an opportunity for Muslims to strengthen their faith and family bonds. “We can turn our home into the center of worship. We pray together and share iftar meals with our family,” he said.
The Religious Affairs Ministry, in a circular released last week, banned government institutions from hosting iftar gatherings.
“Post-Ramadan gatherings can be conducted via social media or call/video conferences,” said the circular.
The council also said that traveling while knowing that one could be carrying the virus is a sin.
While the edicts have not been universally followed — hundreds of members of the international Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat have been quarantined at two Jakarta mosques, after some worshippers tested positive for COVID-19 — many Indonesians are accepting the curtailed Ramadan as fate.
“We have no other choice but to pray at home. Praying together in a mosque is religiously preferable, but I’m sure God will understand,” said Arie Gustian, a 27-year-old member of a mosque in Bogor, West Java. “We have to obey our government, because it’s for our own good.”
Gustian said he will be the only one who fasts in the house because his wife is pregnant, and he will be doing so while worrying about the security of his job.
Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said Friday (April 17) that more than 1.4 million workers had been furloughed or laid off and the government has warned that 5.2 million could lose their jobs.
Renaldi Adri Rimbatara, a 32-year-old father of two who lives in Bogor, fears for his future as the pandemic has forced him to temporarily close his small printing shop.
Rimbatara said he will keep his iftar feast simple this year.
“I don’t know if I can continue to put food on the table if this situation persists,” he said.
Even those who continue to work expect a somber Ramadan. Diana Marsella, a 33-year-old software engineer in Jakarta, has worked from home for a month and said she’s not worried that fasting will make her susceptible to contracting the virus. “We’ll just have to consume more health supplements and eat a lot more fruit and vegetables,” she said.
But she said the confinement would surely make days feel longer. “Ramadan is a time of joy and people spend a lot of time outside praying, meeting friends and even eating suhoor (pre-dawn meals) outside,” she said. “This time it will not be like that.”
For members of the persecuted Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the restrictions to defend against COVID-19 will make this Ramadan doubly difficult. Indonesia’s council of Muslim scholars has declared the teachings of the sect, founded in 1889 by Indian Muslim scholar Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, to be deviant.
The Ahmadiyya, who number about 400,000 in Indonesia, have been targets of attacks by Muslim extremists since at least 2005, when the MUI issued a fatwa declaring that anyone who follows its teachings is no longer Muslim. In 2011, hundreds of machete-wielding residents attacked a house in the Pandeglang district in Banten province, west of Jakarta, killing three Ahmadis.
“It’s like we are at war with two kinds of virus – the coronavirus and the virus of intolerance,” said Abdul Hafiz, a preacher at the Ahmadiyya community’s headquarters in Depok, south of Jakarta.
The mosque in Depok has been sealed off for years, its front door blocked by wooden bars. A sign plastered on the door declares that the building has been closed by the city. Worshippers have been forced to perform congregation prayers in the courtyard outside the mosques.
But Hafiz said their predicaments would not stop the dozen or so Ahmadis at the mosque from worshipping during Ramadan, or carrying out charitable activities, while observing social distancing measures and obeying restrictions imposed by the government.
“During Ramadan, we usually distribute iftar meals to the needy, attend iftar gatherings and perform congregation taraweeh (evening) prayers,” Hafiz said. “This year we will do whatever the authorities tell us to do. But of course as social beings, we have an obligation to help each other and we will continue to do that despite the limitations.”
The Indonesian government has added another cultural event of its ethnic Chinese community to its official list of top attractions in a bid to lure more domestic and international tourists.
Chap Goh Mei marks the end of the Chinese New Year period, and the most lavish celebrations take place in Singkawang, a coastal town of roughly 240,000 in West Kalimantan on Borneo. About 40% of the town’s residents are of Chinese descent, but the celebration itself is a fusion of Chinese, indigenous Dayak and Malay cultures, laden with mysticism and supernatural power.
The highlight of the annual festival is the parade featuring Tatung, or people who are believed to have supernatural powers because they are possessed by the spirits of their ancestors or deities.
Dressed in the colorful garb traditional Chinese and Dayak warriors, more than 800 Tatungs from Singkawang and neighboring towns, as well as from Malaysia and Australia, thronged the town’s main streets on the last day of the celebration on Feb 8.
Spectators lining the parade route watched in awe as marchers demonstrated their supernatural abilities by having their faces and bodies pierced with sharp metal objects. Some were hoisted wooden chairs, but instead of soft upholstery, the seat, backrest, and armrest contain rows of sharp blades and arrows.
“We are proud that Chap Goh Mei in Singkawang is included again in the tourism ministry’s annual top 100 calendar of events, and has become one of the top festival destinations for tourists,” Mayor of Singkawang, Tjhai Chui Mie said prior to the parade.
The annual parade was the culmination of two weeks festivities that started on Jan 23. It has become the main attraction to spur economic growth in Singkawang, through the development in the real sector, the mayor added.
Last year’s festivities attracted 76,964 foreign and domestic tourists, an increase from about 70,000 in 2018, according to the ministry.
Sutarmidji, governor of West Kalimantan, acknowledged the festivities were the biggest tourism event in the province.
“When I was the mayor of Pontianak, I did not allow the Tatung parade to be held during the city’s Chap Goh Mei celebration so that it would remain the main attraction for Singkawang,” he said.
“Pontianak can have the longest dragon dance, but the Tatung parade should be the focus of Singkawang’s Chap Goh Mei.”
Dian Halidi, a tourist from Sumbawa Besar, the main city on Sumba Island in central Indonesia, said he had come to the festivities because he was curious to see the Tatung parade in person.
“I came here just by myself and this is my first time in Singkawang. It turned out the Chap Goh Mei here is really amazing and as spectacular as I have been seeing on television.”
Hotels and homestays in the city were fully booked ahead of the parade, wit room rates as much four times higher than they normally are. Some tour operators even had to book the rooms for their clients a year in advance.
However, concern about the coronavirus in recent weeks led to some people having second thoughts about traveling, although Indonesia officially has reported no cases of infection yet.
Hotel occupancy and visitor numbers slipped as a result, although Daniel, a manager of a homestay in Central Singkawang, said the rooms in his establishment were fully booked for the festivities.
“But reservations and confirmations were slow and occurred at the last minute,” he said.
Hellen Chia, who comes from a family of Tatung and whose siblings are Tatungs from the Tho Fab Kiung temple took part in the parade, said that this year’s crowds of spectators were smaller compared to last year.
Dewi Virtana, a tour leader from a tour operator in Surabaya, East Java, said her company took just one group of 31 tourists to Singkawang this year, compared with three groups last year.
“I think it was mainly due to the rising prices of plane tickets, instead of the coronavirus,” she said.
But another tour operator based in Pontianak, Sentosa Tour, reported a small upturn this year. One of its tour leaders, Willy, said the company had about 200 guests this year, compared to 180 last year.
“We see the number of clients increase every year, he said. “Ninety percent of our clients are domestic, from other big cities in the country, and we also had a few foreign visitors from Japan and Australia who booked our private tours.”
In a bid to attract more tourists to the city, which is about four-hour drive from Pontianak, Mayor Thjai said the city has allocated and cleared an area of 151.45 hectares to build an airport and is seeking to develop it under a public-private partnership.
According to the transport ministry, the first phase of the airport will have a 1,400-metre runway that could accommodate ATR aircraft. A 2,600-metre runway that would allow a Boeing 737 to land could be developed in the future.
A day before the parade, the Tatung also toured the city performing a road cleansing ritual to ward off bad spirits. They also paid respects to their ancestors and deities by visiting various temples and houses of worships, or cetiya, scattered around Singkawang, which is known as the city of a thousand temples.
An entourage from the Hok Lo Nam temple also took part in the ritual. Carrying five dolls made of rattan and dressed in colorful Chinese costumes, the entourage visited a cetiya at a century-old mansion belonging to the Thjia clan in the city center, to pay their respect to the sea goddess to which the cetiya is dedicated.
The dolls were believed to have been possessed by the spirits of their ancestors and deities, as well as a local Malay elder identified as Datuk Suleiman.
More cities in the country with a large population of Chinese descent have been making Chap Goh Mei, or the 15th day of the Chinese new year an annual celebration. They include Jakarta, Palembang in South Sumatra, Bali, and Bogor in West Java.
Bogor celebrated in style this year, with organizers buoyed by the tourism ministry’s decision to place the festival on its official calendar of events.
The West Java provincial administration has even disbursed 30 billion rupiahs to revamp Suryakencana Street, the main street where the annual Chap Goh Mei parade is held in Bogor, 55 kilometers south of Jakarta.
“This is a show of support from the provincial administration,” West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said.
When Rudi Hartono started picking up rubbish on beaches in and around his coastal community on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island more than two years ago, very few people paid attention to him.
But that changed when he began wearing a Spider-Man costume in 2018.
“Wearing the costume did the trick because it attracted people’s attention,” said Rudi, a 36-year-old cafe worker.
“Other people began joining and even the local government started doing their job of cleaning up.”
“More recently, my photos became viral and more people have joined,” he said.
Rudi said he bought the superhero costume to impress his young nephew but instead he scared the boy.
“So I decided to wear it while picking up rubbish on the beaches,” he said.
Rudi said he also removed graffiti scrawled by students on the local council building.
But he said despite the work he has done, some people are critical of his appearance.
“Some people mocked me and called me beer-bellied Spider-Man and an attention seeker,” he said. “But most people are on my side.”
About 20 per cent of plastic waste in Indonesia is believed to end up in rivers and coastal waters, according to the World Bank.
A World Bank report said every 20 minutes the equivalent of a 10-ton truckload of plastic is dumped into the waters around Indonesia, making the country the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China.
Irma Susanti lives a few metres away from a concrete wall that barely keeps seawater from inundating her slum neighbourhood in the north of the Indonesian capital.
A few years ago, authorities raised the wall by nearly a metre, to 2.3 metres high. But even that is sometimes not enough to prevent the dark brown smelly water from entering her house during torrential rain.
On the other side of the wall, the water is covered in a thick carpet of rubbish: tyres, flip-flops, used plastic cups, plastic bags and condoms.
Irma sits on a bench in the scorching sun, her 1-year-old daughter in her arms and an older woman next to her.
“We are always on the lookout for flooding, because the wall can’t always keep the water out,” the 30-year-old mother of two says.
The flooding is worst in January and February, she says, when rain is frequent or when the tide is high.
“My husband works here as a fisherman, so we have no choice but to stay,” Irma says.
No other city in the world is sinking faster than Jakarta. Twenty per cent of the territory is below sea level, and that figure is set to nearly double by 2050, according to researchers at the Bandung Institute of Technology.
The situation is most dire in Jakarta’s northern neighbourhoods, which researchers say will be nearly completely flooded in three decades.
That’s the case at the Wall Adhuna mosque in the harbour district, about 10 minutes by foot from Irma’s neighbourhood. Built during the Dutch era as a small mosque for Muslim sailors, it was abandoned in 2005 after it was flooded, and a wall was built to separate it from dry land. The mosque now stands like a monument to a flood apocalypse, its roof half-collapsed and its walls covered with mould.
Jakarta was founded in 1527 by the sultan of the Sunda Kingdom, who conquered the area from the Portuguese and named it Jayakarta, or Great Victory.
Dutch colonial rulers later renamed the city Batavia as they set out to create a tropical Amsterdam with a dense network of streets and canals. Today, it bears little resemblance to the Dutch capital, with hundreds of thousands of cars idling in hours-long traffic jams, few pedestrians and only a handful of green spaces.
Over 30 million people live in Jakarta and its larger metropolitan area today. Nearly all of the 13 rivers that criss-cross Jakarta are dirty and foul-smelling. Apartment buildings now tower where mangrove forests once stood. In nearby landfills, plastic is burned.
But why is Jakarta sinking? Sea levels are rising, and serious city planning has been absent for a long time. The city is mostly paved with asphalt and concrete, which means that water has nowhere to go during heavy rainfall. But Jakarta’s sinking has less to do with what happens above ground than what happens below.
Around half of Jakarta’s households are connected to the privatized piped water network, but others are forced to pump their water out of the ground by hand or with electric pumps. The continuous extraction of groundwater means that the land above it sinks.
“It’s like a quiet, very slow murder,” says urban planner Nirwono Joga, who advises the government of President Joko Widodo. “You do not even see the bottom sinking in most neighbourhoods. This happens so slowly that most of them are not aware of it.”
Large hotels, factories and shopping malls also have their own pump systems. “The problems are man-made and not nature’s,” Nirwono says.
For households that are neither connected to the water supply system nor able to pump, clean water has to be delivered by truck. This is the case for Irma’s family, whose two blue 250-litre tanks are located directly on the protective sea wall. Irma cooks, washes and bathes using the water. One hundred litres cost about one dollar – not an insignificant sum for Irma or her neighbours.
“None of us has a pump,” she says. “The water here is disgusting. Filters don’t help either.”
Jakarta’s sinking is visible in other areas. In the North Jakarta subdistrict of Penjaringan, houses that used to be at ground level are now about one metre lower. Residents who used to look down on the street from their homes now live below it.
“The last time I had a flood, water as high as 20 centimetres inundated the kitchen,” says Abdul Mukti, a Penjaringan resident.
Water is seeping from the ground in front of the 62-year-old’s salmon-coloured house, but he says has no intention of moving elsewhere and does not believe that the area could sink further.
“I’m not afraid,” he says. “Flooding is only a few days a year. The rest of the year I can live without problems.”
In the nearby neighbourhood of Akuarium, dozens of houses were demolished in 2016 because of flooding, but some residents have stayed put, making do with life in makeshift shelters.
The continual sinking is not for a lack of bold ideas among city leaders. After a major flood in 2007, the city commissioned a Dutch company to build a 57-kilometre seawall several kilometres offshore, and artificial islands called Kita (We), Maju (Progress) and Bersama (Together) have been built. But the houses built there are just as empty as the streets, and the island project has been dogged by corruption allegations.
The latest plan to address Jakarta’s sinking problem is perhaps the most ambitious yet: to build a whole new capital outside Java, some 1,200 kilometres from Jakarta.
Under the proposed plan, the new capital will be built in the jungles of Borneo island, somewhere halfway between the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda.
The cost of the move to the new unnamed capital is estimated at more than 30 billion dollars. The first officials are scheduled to move into their new offices as early as 2024 – the last year of the president’s final term in office. Some Indonesians joke that the new capital should be named Jokograd, after the president.
Despite the national efforts, hardly anyone in the poor neighbourhoods along the protective walls is perturbed by the prospects of sinking.
“I know it costs a lot of money,” Irma says. “But if the government think it’s for the best, I have no problems. We are only small people.”