As one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change and sea level rise, Indonesia’s archipelago may be a wellspring of solutions for the future of coastal cities in the region. It has to start from the ground up argues Barry Beagen, Programme Director at Kota Kita Foundation.
Dry Feet for All
Pak Puji looks over a pond in the coastal neighbourhood of Kemijen, Semarang. On the back of his shirt, there is a slogan, “Dry feet for all”. Kemijen has suffered persistent tidal inundation –locally called “rob” – over the last few decades. The slogan was used by the community in their long-drawn advocacy directed at the local government. Ultimately, it resulted in the creation of the “Banger Polder”, which is touted as an exemplary model of a comprehensive approach to water management, governance, and physical infrastructure.
Surrounded by an upgraded dyke and equipped with a new pump, the polder is supposedly governed by a joint committee called Badan Pengelolaan Polder Sima (BPP SIMA) – made up of community representatives, civil society, and active members of academia and government. While the infrastructure was finally completed in 2018, the institutional arrangements are still in flux. In the meantime, Kemijen’s future remains uncertain, sinking with rapid land subsidence and the looming threat of sea level rise.
Coastal Cities Bear the Brunt of it All
There are many coastal communities like Kemijen across the country. They are often exposed to multiple risks located downstream of a watershed: coastal hazards such as tidal inundations and storm surges, pluvial hazards due to overstrained urban drainage systems and poor solid waste management, and fluvial hazards resulting from increased river discharges due to mismanaged hinterlands.
In addition to flood risks, coastal cities often face immense challenges in water security and pollution. In the case of the Banger river running through Kemijen, the smell can be unbearable in the dry season, when the water is too low for the pumps to flush the system. These risks are further compounded by rapid urbanisation and growth driven by the inevitable role of coastal cities as engines of economic development in the region.
There is No Silver Bullet
Despite these challenges, coastal cities are here to stay. While the Indonesian government is meeting the climate crisis head-on with a euphoria of infrastructure building – focussing on coastal protection, upgrading river embankments, and large-scale dams for water security – they do not address long-term resilience. A costly stop-gap measure privileging construction and quick political wins, they often are in conflict with local communities and their livelihoods, resulting in resettlements and disruptions in livelihoods. Physical environmental challenges are symptoms of fundamental institutional challenges and governance.
A neighbourhood along the delta of the Tondano River in Manado making way for new flood protection system of concrete embankments © Kota Kita
Building Resilience is about Refining Adaptation Processes
The foundation of long-term resilience is good governance – small and large. It means institutional collaboration to deliver more integrated and comprehensive approaches; effective use of data for evidence-based risk-informed planning; responsible financial management through innovative project financing and municipal asset management; and focussing on inclusive growth with participatory approaches to planning and development that includes the most vulnerable. In short, refining the process of adaptation means improving the software (governance) that supports the hardware (infrastructure).
A Kota Kita-led multi-stakeholder city design workshop in Pontianak using case studies and risk-based maps to develop opportunities for flood risk reduction and urban development @ Kota Kita
Notes for Building Resilience from the Ground Up
- Small action matters: promoting local community actions – like solid waste management, household rainwater harvesting, compliance with risk-based zoning, and self-initiated upgrading of urban infrastructure – can go a long way. It builds social capital needed for long-term resilience, and it can address current shortages in local government administrative capacity and finances.
- Check for local wisdom: in many coastal communities, traditional settlements have long adapted to environmental challenges – housing built on stilts or communally managed drainage/irrigation systems. In Pontianak, the frequent widespread flooding is perceived as a nuisance. Rather than taking the unrealistic approach of investing hundreds of millions in upgraded drainage systems, its immediate approach is to promote a way of living with water, to learn from the traditional settlements and the way they approach the ebb and flow of the rivers.
- Resilience as a framework for growth: the goal of development and growth can be coupled with objectives to build climate change resilience. For instance, underperforming coastal industrial zones in Semarang can leverage new coastal protection systems for economic revitalisation. Waterfront tourism developments in Bima or Manado can become opportunities for improved urban infrastructure improvements. These alignments of co-benefits may improve the financial sustainability of needed capital investments.
A local community organisation has organised a bike ride along the dyke and river (Kali Banger), inviting representatives from the local government to educate the public on the polder system and the need for better solid waste management in the waterways @ Kota Kita
Traditional neighbourhood in Pontianak that lives harmoniously with the water, taking advantage of the ebb and flow of the river instead of working against it @ Traditional neighbourhood in Pontianak that lives harmoniously with the water, taking advantage of the ebb and flow of the river instead of working against it @ Kota Kita
New reclamation zones in Manado resulted in increased floods by blocking the outlets of urban drainage. With new investments for tourism amenities in Manado, the upgrading of these areas can be integrated with new coastal protection systems and renewed drainages @ Kota Kita
Indonesian cities – their citizens and institutions – are also evolving, like many other cities around the world. As an archipelagic nation of coastal cities with a milieu of geographic, economic, and socio-cultural relationships, the world can learn from the regions different and emerging approaches to adaptation and mitigation.