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More Mangroves, Less Flooding

Photo by Pak Liam http://alwaysrestlessfeet.wordpress.com
Photo by Pak Liam http://alwaysrestlessfeet.wordpress.com

Did you know there is actually a mangrove plantation in Jakarta? You probably have driven by it many times and not even noticed. It can be found right along the expressway connecting central Jakarta with Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, a tiny bit of greenery and one of Jakarta’s few true protections against Climate Change and flooding. It is a shadow of what once was a vast mangrove forest that covered most of the north coast of Java. Mangroves, which thrive in the mixture of sea and freshwater along coastlines, help maintain sea levels and hold back storm surges, forming a wall against flooding.

I visited it last summer when working for Kehati, the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation. Rows of carefully plotted and maintained mangroves fill a swampy wetland, small but efficient. Each Mangrove is planted as the result of a donation, cared for by a non-profit that runs the centre. They also work to educate local children about the benefits of nature and the environment.

Jakarta needs mangroves, as a city in a delta-basin, one that, under natural conditions, is often inundated. Today, the bulging megacity, with its strained infrastructure and depleted environment, is so susceptible to flooding that there have even been calls for moving the capital to another province. The shut-down we saw this past January 17th is only the latest example of what will likely be a more regular occurrence if things do not dramatically change.

The fact is, Indonesia is incredibly vulnerable to climate shifts. Already Climate Change is making a small, but noticeable impact through more intense rainfalls across the archipelago. As temperatures rise in the coming years, it is predicted that the rainy season will shrink, leading to shorter but more substantial downpours, while the dry season will become longer and more desiccant. In fact, the seasonal Monsoon’s onset may be delayed by as much as 30 days. This means harder soils with less absorptive capacity, and greater runoff, leading to higher and more frequent flood risk.

There is also the threat of more intense, and potentially more frequent, El Nino events. El Nino is a normal, periodic warming of waters off the coast of Peru which affects global weather patterns. In Indonesia, this usually means drought conditions. You may remember the last strong El Nino, in 1997-98, the same years that rampant fires decimated Sumatra and Kalimantan, leaving an estimated $9 billion in economic losses and the harmful smog that blanketed Southeast Asia.

Muara Angke Fauna by Antony Sutton
Muara Angke Fauna – photo by Antony Sutton

Warmer temperatures also mean higher sea levels. Just a one metre increase – well within consensus scientific projections – will mean that 405,000 hectares of land with be flooded in Indonesia, especially in low-lying, densely populated north Java. Jakarta is especially at risk because nearly 40% of the city lies below sea level. Sea water intrusion also can harm freshwater supplies and pollute groundwater. Moreover, ocean temperatures will be higher, which is harmful for corals and their dependent fisheries, a major source of food and livelihood for Indonesians. Warmer water also means stronger cyclones, such as the ones which have recently affected Bali.

The economic effects of all this will be huge. A detailed study from the International Food Policy Institute says that Climate Change will have significant negative impacts on the Indonesian economy by 2030, especially in the agricultural and fishing sectors. There is an environmental justice angle to the situation, as it is the poor who live in low-lying, flood prone regions, and who are more dependent on agriculture for income. It is they who will suffer the most, acerbating income inequality.

So what can Indonesia do? The Government has developed several adaptation plans, which outline general goals, but, as the flooding showed, little concrete action has been taken. Now is the time to implement those plans. Stated environmental actions include restoring mangrove forests along the coast, increasing forest cover around Jakarta, which would reduce water run-off, lessening the strain on the city’s infrastructure.

Indonesia also needs to take action to mitigate emissions. Few realize that Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the United States. However, unlike both those countries, whose main sources of emissions are the energy and agricultural sectors, here 85% of emissions come from deforestation and land-use change.

There needs to be strong global action on greenhouse gases, and Indonesia, as one of the largest polluters, needs to take a more active global role and reduce its own forest emissions. The chief drivers are palm oil plantations, whose short term financial gains are greatly outweighed by the long term costs of fire, biodiversity loss, and Climate Change. One relatively easy step that can be taken is promoting more sustainable, multi-specied, dispersed palm oil plantations versus existing single-species plantations, which remove water from the soil and make fires more likely. Enforcement, of course, will be key.

Unfortunately, things are still moving in the wrong direction. I recently learned that the proposed rail line to the airport will cut right through the mangrove plantation I visited. The question now is, have the recent floods created the impetus for Indonesia to change its urban development policies, restore watersheds and adapt to Climate Change? Or will we have to wait for another more devastating, and potentially catastrophic, flood to force us into action?

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