JAKARTA: Mr Yusuf, who lives in the Jakarta suburb of Bogor, is dreading the La Nina floods which are expected to hit around year end.
The 42-year-old who goes by one name still remembers seeking refuge at his next-door neighbour's house on Jan 1 this year when his own was flooded.
They ended up getting stuck at the second floor of his neighbour’s house for nearly 20 hours with little to eat, as the flood-prone neighbourhood continued to be submerged in knee-deep water.
Eventually, both families decided to head over to an evacuation centre, where they stayed for two nights.
“I am worried that I would have to do that again this year,” Mr Yusuf told CNA. “I worry that a cramped evacuee shelter would be a breeding ground for COVID-19. I have two small children, you see. But at the same time, we cannot stay at home.”
On Jan 1, water levels on the Cileungsi River, which cuts through two of Jakarta’s suburbs Sentul and Bogor, started to rise just after dark.
It had been raining heavily that day on the hilly upstream areas and residents recalled seeing the river raging faster and faster, bringing with it debris of fallen trees and mud.
The water level got so high as the night went by it nearly destroyed a bridge which on a dry season stood at least 6m from the surface of the river.
At 10pm, the river began to spill onto the streets and roads of Villa Nusa Indah housing complex, 5km from the eastern edge of the Indonesian capital, inundating homes as far away as 200m from the riverbank.
Hundreds of homes were submerged in water, in some areas up to 3m deep. Three thousand people including Mr Yusuf, who do not have the luxury of owning a two-storey home, had to seek refuge at nearby mosques or look for shelter elsewhere.
The short, bespectacled man with a salt-and-pepper beard said he is unsure what to do if another flood hits while the country is still struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
And experts predict that the next flood could be bigger than the last one because of the La Nina weather phenomenon.
RACE AGAINST TIME
At least 15 per cent of Jakarta and its surrounding suburbs were inundated in January. About 173,000 people had to evacuate in a series of floods, which also killed 66 people.
The Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) predicted that the La Nina weather phenomenon will bring heavy rains which are 20 to 40 per cent above the intensity seen in previous rainy seasons.
“The peak (of La Nina) is predicted to occur between December and February. Therefore, we must brace ourselves (for natural disasters) in December, January and February,” BMKG chief Dwikorita Karnawati told a radio talk show on Oct 25.
The La Nina weather phenomenon had already pushed the rainy season early with some parts of Indonesia experiencing heavy downpour as early as August.
In Jakarta and the surrounding areas, the rainy season has so far triggered a number of landslides as well as floods which affected thousands of residents. Although not as devastating as the January flood and only a handful of people had to evacuate, the Villa Nusa Indah complex was submerged in water again on Oct 25.
The government is racing to control the floods, with dredging work being done in rivers and flood control dams across Jakarta.
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan said on Nov 4 that he wanted to see no more casualties when major floods hit. He instructed his men to make sure that water recedes in less than six hours.
“Our drainage system is capable of handling 100mm of rain. We have to make sure our drainage system is not clogged. I want to see no flooding during light rain of below 100mm,” he told his subordinates during an inspection in North Jakarta.
“If it rains like the beginning of the year… I instruct that there should not be any victim, all residents are safe and water must recede in six hours.”
Mr Baswedan said the quick response time is meant to minimise the need for people to evacuate and expose themselves to COVID-19 transmission.
But Mr Firdaus Ali, a University of Indonesia environmental technology expert and chairman of think-tank Indonesia Water Institute is sceptical.
“(Jakarta’s) 13 rivers can only transport 950 cubic metres of water per second. During heavy rain, there can be more than 2,500 (cubic meters per second). The rivers will have no choice but to spill over,” Mr Ali told CNA.
The expert said the only chance for flood water to recede that fast is for Jakarta to evict thousands of people illegally occupying the riverbanks and "normalise" the rivers, which involves widening and deepening the waterways, something Mr Baswedan had promised not to do during his 2017 campaign to become governor.
PREVENTING THE SPREAD OF COVID-19
More than 120,000 people in Jakarta had contracted COVID-19 - a quarter of the national caseload - and health experts worry that a massive flood would aggravate the situation.
Mr Wiku Adisasmito, spokesman for the central government’s COVID-19 task force warned of possible COVID-19 clusters occurring in flood relief camps and urged regional administrations to think about safe places where people can evacuate.
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“People are normally cramped together inside tents. This poses a risk for (COVID-19) infection. People would be more susceptible (to COVID-19) because their immunity levels drop during a disaster. Regional administrations must anticipate this by applying strict health protocols at flood relief camps,” he told a press conference on Oct 15.
The Jakarta Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD Jakarta) said it is mapping out potential flood relief sites and figuring out ways to minimise the spread of COVID-19.
“We are looking at sites like sports stadiums and assembly halls. We also plan to convert schools (into shelters) which we are able to do now because students are studying at home. If these are not sufficient then we will place them at hotels,” BPBD Jakarta emergency and evacuee handling chief Wardoyo told Indonesian news portal Detik on Nov 8.
Mr Wardoyo, who also goes with one name, said that the relief centres will be more spread out instead of being concentrated in one or two locations like in previous years. The evacuees will also be subject to COVID-19 rapid tests and tents will be equipped with partition boards.
BRACING FOR THE WORST
Villa Nusa Indah resident Sutarjo is not convinced. He told CNA that he would prefer staying in a small room on the second floor of his house, which he specifically built as a shelter for when the big flood hits, rather than being cramped into a shelter with hundreds of other evacuees.
“My wife and I are old. We are in the vulnerable age group,” he said.
Mr Sutarjo, a 78-year-old retiree with bleary, sunken eyes and a hearing loss, lives with his wife Ratih Suratya, who is 74.
“The water level went up to here,” Mr Sutarjo said of the flood in January, pointing to a spot on his neon green wall which is about 3m below the ceiling.
The January flood caught the pair by surprise, his wife Suratya said. “We knew that the flood was coming, but we weren’t sure how bad it was going to be,” she told CNA.
“We thought it was only going to be one or two metres deep so we put all of our clothes and precious belongings on top of the cupboard and went to bed on the second floor.”
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By the time they woke up, the flood destroyed everything they had. “We had no food. We only had the clothes on our backs. Our money was there but the notes were soaked,” Mr Sutarjo recalled.
Desperate for food and with their house still submerged in knee-deep water, they evacuated to the nearest shelter.
This time, with the threat of COVID-19 lurking, they are determined not to leave their house, no matter how bad the flood will be. “We just cannot take the risk,” Suratya said.
Villa Nusa Indah is one of the flood-prone housing complexes in the Greater Jakarta Area, which comprises the Indonesian capital and its five suburbs.
A flood last swept the middle-income complex on Oct 25 and residents were still reeling from its effects when CNA visited two weeks later.
Metres away from the banks of the Cileungsi River, there were roads still covered in thick, slippery mud and had become inaccessible to motorised vehicles. Meanwhile the bridge that was nearly devastated by the flood had parts of its railings missing or mangled by the strong current.
Many people had packed up their bags and moved away, unable to cope with the constant threat of flood. They left behind abandoned houses covered in mud which have been left unsold for years.
But moving is not an option for the retired couple. A house on the banks of a flood-prone river is all they can afford.
“We just have to make the most of what we have and prepare for the worst,” Mr Sutarjo said.