New Year’s Eve in Indonesia was greeted with heavy rains across its capital city of Jakarta, and they soon proved to be deadly. Although heavy rains are typical of the monsoon season, this year they were particularly extreme, causing fatal mudslides and flooding, which took the lives of at least 66 people. Homes have been destroyed or left unsafe meaning nearly 400,000 people have sought refuge from one of the 270 shelters established throughout the area. The statistics are alarming, with the last case of destruction of this scale occurring in 2007. The extreme nature of this year’s rains has led experts to highlight the climate emergency’s role in contributing to the crisis.
The government has established emergency shelters to house displaced citizens and deployed 11,000 health workers to help those injured. They have also begun spraying disinfectant to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases as well as attempting to break up the rain clouds looming over Jakarta with chemical seeding. There have been reports that the conditions of the shelters are poor and overcrowded, but as many homes are still submerged and uninhabitable, many residents have no choice but to remain living in these conditions. With more rains predicted for the coming month, there is rising concern that the city will not recover quickly enough to avert further disaster. Indonesia’s long coastline positions it as highly likely to suffer the negative impacts of the climate crisis. As the climate crisis intensifies, the impact of our lack of significant action is becoming increasingly clear – the extreme rains were unpredicted rendering the preparations made by the government inadequate. As the planet heats up, we can expect to witness more extreme weather, more natural disasters and conditions which exacerbate the crisis. The climate crisis has also been cited as a factor contributing to the intensity of the bush fires which have been devastating Australia. Again, at the height of summer, fires are a yearly occurrence but this year’s have been particularly deadly, with the environmental lobby demanding this to be seen as a wakeup call to the reality of the climate emergency and the pressing need to change. It is expected that increasingly extreme weather will become more commonplace on a hotter planet meaning that we will witness crises like these with increasing frequency.
I believe, as do many, that this is a terrifying truth as we come face-to-face with the reality of the climate emergency. However, it seems as though this fear is not always shared, especially by members of society with the most powerful institutions. Despite Indonesia’s vulnerable position, the climate crisis is not widely considered a significant issue; a YouGov poll revealed that 18% of Indonesians believe there to be no link between human activity and the climate crisis, one of the highest percentages recorded. Moreover, globally Indonesia is the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the top exporter of thermal coal and palm oil. These industries have significantly contributed to the climate crisis but the government has admitted they have no plans to adjust their policies or targets which were agreed under the Paris accord. Instead, the long-term plan for Indonesia is to continue using coal for over half of their power generation for the next decade. This does not meet the radical action that experts propose is necessary and instead symbolises the prioritisation of profit over the planet.
There is an argument to be made that as the effects of the climate crisis are more obviously seen in the Global South, much of the West can delay demands for urgent change (or outright deny them). Perhaps this has been reflected in the concentration of media attention on the Australian bush fires rather than the floods taking place in Indonesia. Both these events occurring in the past few months have been devastating; they’ve destroyed homes and taken lives and ultimately such crises should not be compared or made to compete for media attention. However, it is apparent that the Australian fires have received significantly more public attention, receiving the focus of all major news outlets and dominating social media. This outpouring of attention, empathy and donations are not only utterly justified but an uplifting example of humanity, however the victims of Jakarta have not shared the same experience. Many British citizens may be unaware of the events in Indonesia and this disparity has occurred in the past, subsequently reinforcing the claim that the climate crisis disproportionately affects the poorest members of society.
Moreover, this inequality is reflected within Indonesia as the floods have had a vastly more significant impact upon the poor living in and around Jakarta. The areas of Jakarta where poorer families tend to live are less developed, lacking access to infrastructure such as good-quality roads and electricity. Therefore, they are left the most vulnerable to such disasters. Additionally, it has been reported by the Jakarta based Urban Studies centre that modern development projects in the city are raised at least three feet above street level, meaning they avoided the worst of the flooding. The richest in the city can afford to literally occupy higher ground and preserve their buildings whilst the majority of residents had no such protection. As the director of the Urban Studies centre Sutanudjaja surmised: “In a climate crisis, they [the poor] are the first victims, and the last ones to get help.”
The extent of the rains in Jakarta this January caused widespread destruction to the city and took the lives of at least 66 people. The government has created shelters to house the thousands of displaced citizens and took initiatives to prevent the spread of disease. However, the climate crisis indicates that extreme rains will become increasingly common unless radical action is taken globally. The crisis has been contained by the Indonesian government for now, but their long-term plans do not sufficiently address the cause. The floods should be alerting the world to the increasing intensity of the climate emergency and its evermore real impact, yet a lack of media coverage has pointed to the inequality of the crisis and prevented widespread awareness.