Indonesia is one of the countries most at risk of the impacts of climate change.
A 2004 report by the World Wildlife Fund showed that the country’s annual temperatures had increased and that precipitation patterns had changed — noting a decline in rainfall in some regions and an increase in others.
“Decreased rainfall during critical times of the year may translate into high drought risk, uncertain water availability, and consequently, uncertain ability to produce agricultural goods, economic instability, and drastically more undernourished people, hindering progress against poverty and food insecurity,” the report warned.
It also noted that increased rainfall in wet seasons would lead to a greater risk of floods such as the Jakarta flood in February 2007.
Indonesia is a densely populated region with a population of almost 300 million. The megacity of Jakarta is at particular risk of the devastating impacts of climate change and it is estimated that “around 25% of the capital area will be submerged in 2050” as a result of rising sea levels and the city sinking.
Nashin Mahtani was born and raised in Indonesia and specifically Jakarta. She has witnessed climate change impact her first home in real time. Here she shares how this experience led her to become the director of Yayasan Peta Bencana (Disaster Map Foundation), which is a non-governmental organization in Southeast Asia that works on community-led climate adaptation. Mahtani now lives in Bali, but her work continues to improve the lives of people in Jakarta.
I would describe myself as an inhabitant of this Earth, just like you and millions of other species.
I am also a daughter, a sister, a friend, a colleague, aspiring to make a positive difference. What matters to me is that we leave things better than we find them, and that we spread joy in the lives of those we encounter. It matters to me that everyone has the right to a safe and healthy life, access to education, and the freedom to express themselves.
The formal title I hold is director of Yayasan Peta Bencana (Disaster Map Foundation), which is a Southeast Asian based NGO working on community-led climate adaptation. Since 2013, our team has been developing open source technologies to empower every resident to be able to participate in disaster recovery and risk reduction efforts, decentralize emergency response, and democratize emergency decision support tools.
I only realized how special it was to grow up in Indonesia when I first started to live outside of the country. Ecologically, culturally, and socially, Indonesia is one of the most diverse places in the world, and living here, one encounters the widest variety of people and species — there is no greater teacher than engaging with this depth and breadth of diversity on a day-to-day basis.
I was born and grew up in Jakarta, a megacity of 31 million people, situated on the coastal edge of one of the world’s most disaster-prone regions. In Jakarta, the juxtapositions of socio-economic disparity are pronounced in everyday life; from the way the city is built (with elite enclave compounds adjacent to dense villages) to the types of interactions and exchanges that traverse between “formal” and “informal” sectors of the city.
It is no surprise then, that from an early age, we are already vividly aware of our own roles in these juxtapositions — namely, for us, that meant that when we are in a position to give (which we almost always are), it is our duty to take care of those around us. The struggles that my own family faced in their lifetimes made me especially aware of inequalities in access to basic human rights, especially education. I have always felt extremely fortunate and grateful that I was granted access to education without barriers, and this only came because of the decisions and hard work of those before me.
Understanding this as a child, I always felt it was my duty to grant the same to others, in as much as I was able to. Since middle school, most of my volunteer work centered around youth education in underprivileged areas, and I think these impressions have guided a lot of my work today.
Nashin Mahtani poses for a portrait at her house in Bali, Indonesia in May 2022.
I experienced the impact of the climate crisis long before I understood what it was. Jakarta experiences a seasonal monsoon and growing up, we were used to experiencing heavy rainfall for at least six months of the year. As a child, I took pleasure in long stretches of steady monsoon rain; overjoyed to see an overcast sky signaling a prolonged downpour. I savored the way the monsoon dampened all other sounds in the megacity. However, the feelings of comfort that I associated with the monsoon began to shift as weather patterns became more erratic. Monsoon rains were no longer steady, they became increasingly unpredictable, occurring in short intense bursts with no identifiable pattern.
In 2002, Jakarta experienced its worst flood in history (at the time). It was the first memory I have of evacuating our home due to inundation. As a child, what concerned me most was not being able to go to school for a stretch of days, and not knowing how long it would last. Every year after 2002, family and table conversations about flooding became more frequent. The water stain left by the flood waters on our living room walls rose by several inches each year. This was the first I heard of Jakarta’s sinking.
Over 40% of Jakarta is situated below sea level, and according to World Bank studies, the city is sinking by an average of 5 to 10 centimeters a year, and up to 25 centimeters or more in the worst hit areas. As Jakarta sits on deltaic soils, land subsidence is accelerating due to uncontrolled groundwater pumping, or the removal of water from the land on which it sits.
Water privatization, access, and distribution has a long colonial history in Jakarta, and the unequal access to water that is physically built into the distribution system, is one of many attributable factors to Jakarta’s sinking. To make up for the large gaps in water provision left by the official distribution system, thousands of wells with depths over 140 meters by factories, hotels, shopping centers, and other developments, as well as backyard wells, proliferate in the city to extract water from the ground.
Jakarta is also one of the most rapidly urbanizing cities in the world, and with the rapid concretization of the city’s surfaces, there is less area for rainwater to seep into the ground and replenish the groundwater. More than 97% of Jakarta is covered by concrete and asphalt, and even when heavy rains fall, the water doesn’t penetrate back into the ground. With groundwater extraction rates far exceeding the rate at which this water is replenished, the aquifers, on which the city rests, shrink and the city sinks under its own weight.
Kelurahan Menteng neighborhood in Jakarta, an area prone to flooding, photographed in November 2019.
Jakarta is also located within a shallow delta, which fills with water during heavy rainfall from the drainage of the mountains to the south. The 13 rivers that run through the city to drain this watershed have been channelized and merged with Dutch colonial canals to manage the city’s water. In a time of climate change, where we are experiencing a greater intensity of weather, these infrastructures are bursting under the increasing pressure of extreme weather. The most disastrous floods in Jakarta in recent years have been the result of sudden and unexpected infrastructure failures.
In Jakarta, flooding rarely follows topographical lines. Rather, flooding is often a combination of collapsed canal walls, broken water pumps, power failures that disrupt water pumps, the release of water from upstream watersheds, and the rerouting of water through flood gates. With all of these combined factors, in addition to increasingly erratic weather changes, it has become increasingly difficult to predict flooding.
However, even though residents may not be able to predict monsoon patterns in the same way they could historically, digital media networks have provided new ways for residents to self-organize in real time.
When it floods, Jakartans actively share posts on social media to warn each other of flooded areas and share efforts for community response. In 2013, a group of researchers, led by Dr. Tomas Holderness and Dr. Etienne Turpin, recognized that if there was a way to quickly filter through the wealth of data being shared on social media, that data could be harnessed to support residents all over the city in making timely decisions to minimize loss.
The team developed an open source software called CogniCity, that [searches] for specific keywords (such as flood, earthquake, fire, etc.). When it detects a post that uses these keywords, a humanitarian chatbot (colloquially known as “BencanaBot” or “DisasterBot”) sends an automatic response asking users to confirm their situation by submitting a simple disaster report. Once a user submits a report, it is immediately plotted on a live web-based map in real time. The map is designed to be mobile-centric and extremely data light, so that it can be easily accessed by anyone with the most basic internet-connected mobile phone.
Since 2013, the real-time map has been used by millions of residents to view and share real-time disaster information. It has also been adopted by the National Emergency Management Agency (BNPB) to view and respond to resident needs. The software effectively transforms social media networks into a real-time emergency coordination system, supporting residents in their efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.
Our team is currently transforming social media into its evolution as a real-time coordination platform for mutual aid and social solidarity. This is the future of urbanism, where cities that survive will be driven by infrastructures that are adaptive, and collectively built and maintained. We still have time to reroute planetary computation for the production of alternate urban futures and enable the evolution of thriving, just, equitable human societies for all.
Nashin Mahtani works from her house in Bali, Indonesia in May 2022. She is the director of the nonprofit Yayasan Peta Bencana, where she leads the development of software to support disaster relief.
In terms of interventions, I would like to see greater accountability to global commitments towards addressing the climate crisis and far braver, much more immediate action. I would like to see a holistic approach to addressing climate change — recognizing that climate justice and social justice are intertwined — and integrated approaches to health. I would like to see local and Indigenous knowledge placed at the forefront — as legitimate and necessary forms of science that drive policies and our ways of relating to the world, to each other, and to our environments. We are certainly seeing this change happen from the ground up. I would like to see the bravery and courage of our leaders in joining us.
Our work is built on a transdisciplinary, cross-sectoral, inclusive approach with the widest variety of people, so we welcome anyone to reach out to us. As a famous colloquialism in Indonesia goes: “Disaster is everybody’s business.” There are always useful ways to work together.
Nashin Mahtani poses for a portrait at her house in Bali, Indonesia in May 2022.