Interview with Holland Winner

Rita Padawangi and Michael Douglass co-authored the Holland Prize winning paper “Water, Water Everywhere: Toward Participatory Solutions to Chronic Urban Flooding in Jakarta”

1. Can you tell us about some of the intellectual and personal reasons you became interested in the subject?

Each of us has a long-standing interest in the environment and Jakarta, particularly with regard to flooding.  Rita is from Bogor, which is upstream from the Jakarta’s principal river, the Ciliwung, and from her childhood she was very familiar with the saying that floods in Jakarta “are send from Bogor”.   Mike lived in Jakarta in the mid-1980s where he worked for the UN and the Department of Public Works on Indonesia’s national urban development strategy, one aspect of which was attempts at environmental zoning of Jakarta to prevent flooding.   We finally brought our interests together when we joined the Asia Research Institute in 2012/2013 and Mike launched a program on disaster governance in our Asian Urbanisms Cluster. This research contributed to a larger effort among many scholars to win a major grant on “Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia”, for which Mike is the PI (Principal Investigator).  Academically, this is part of our endeavor to bring disasters more into social sciences, which is still in need of theorization as well as linking research with action.   While Mike has continued his research and writing at the regional scale of Jabotabek (Jakarta-Bogor-Tangerang-Bekasi) over the years, the interviews that Rita brings to our collaboration are results of long-term as well as ongoing research funded by a previous grant. As mentioned in the article, it was practically a result of seven years of continuous research in Jakarta.

During all the years of our independent and collaborative research up to the present day, intensive development continued ferociously in the upstream, which really contributes to the increasing magnitudes and frequencies of Ciliwung floods in Jakarta. At the same time, excessive ground water depletion and land developing in Jakarta added the dimension of blame for Ciliwung floods shifting towards the riverbank settlers, with repeated statements from government officials that the riverbank settlements are narrowing the river, while in fact there has not been any significant reduction in environmental degradation of the watershed.

Simultaneously, there are many community organizations that care about the river and many bottom-up initiatives that are really growing from the longing for improvements of the conditions of the river. We truly think that scholarship can play a pivotal role in understanding how these initiatives and practices are key dimensions of the political ecology of flooding in Jakarta, with the hope to uncover and to make the case for participatory approaches in governing flooding.  We would add that they also raise questions of disaster justice in terms of both identifying the actual sources of flooding in Jakarta and who bears its most severe consequences.

2. What is the central argument of your article in a nutshell?

We argue that members of urban communities are not passive dependents of government assistance in managing flooding; many of them are actively initiating flood mitigation efforts, flood adaptation, environmental improvements, and advocacies. However, we are not romanticizing their actions, as we also realize the difficulties that each organization faces and challenges of collaborations on the community level. That is why we made the statement about the limitations, particularly in achieving a coherent alternative city planning idea and proposal. The limitations are also imposed by the context of megaproject-dominated urban development that continue to encroach on these community spaces with increasing speed and magnitude.

Furthermore, we also argue that communities that are resilient in times of flooding are those that are resilient in non-flooding times as a result of their long-term community building for social and economic vitality.  In other words, claiming the right to dwell in the city through self-empowerment is foundational for longer term resilience in the face of repeated and often severe flooding episodes.

3. Were there any unexpected challenges or developments during the process of on-the-ground research?

It is challenging because we are not based in Jakarta. We are both based in Singapore, which is air-travel-wise is not that far, but it is still a distance away. However, it is helpful to have good collaborations on the ground and also reliable informants. Long-term relationship with them really helps in increasing trust and understanding.

Another challenge is that we are dealing with an ever-changing site. The riverbank settlement was always threatened by eviction. By the time our paper came out in September 2015, one side of the river was already violently bulldozed. It was heartbreaking, especially when we made the case in this article to have a participatory approach to govern flooding in Jakarta. But personally our main concern was the future of families and individuals who were evicted.

We also had to maintain relationship with several different organizations along the river and to observe the government’s policies and actions closely, which was very intensive and time-consuming but at the same time was rewarding.

Moreover, we need to situate this within the urban development trajectory of Jakarta, which is very dynamic and requires us to constantly update ourselves.  From a normative as well as explanatory perspectives, one of the greatest challenges to environment-related research in rapidly expanding cities in Asia is linking macro-level city region research with micro neighborhood level research.   Plans are being made at the regional scale that do not take into account the experiences or voices of people on the ground level of their daily lives.  We hope our efforts to make these linkages will assist in generating new types of multi-scalar research on flooding.

4. What might be some of the implications of your argument and research for studies of decentralization (and/or other subjects) beyond Indonesia to other parts of Asia and the world?

First of all, our paper in general suggests to look at human agency and its cooperative expressions at the community level in governing flooding. Urban floods are the most common type of urban disaster in Asia, and very often we find top-down technocratic solutions as shortcuts for hoped for quick results. Yet, such engineering solutions that also entail the destruction of human settlements fall further and further behind the growing frequencies and impacts of flooding  while ignoring the potential for participatory approaches to contribute to the mitigation of flooding.  This ignorance of the capacities of human agency is also ignorance of the objectives of flood alleviation in the first place. The capacity of urban residents to be resilient to floods is important to acknowledge and to be accounted for in governing flooding.

In this context, decentralization hardens municipal boundaries in cases where environmental hazards are not evenly distributed. In the case of Jakarta floods, the environmental degradation of the watershed knows no city boundaries, but the responses to them are bounded by these administrative territories. Urban administrative territories are often, if not always, incoherent in relation to the geographies and ecologies of natural environments, such as riparian regions with complex interconnections among river bodies, lakes and watersheds. However, at the same time, more power in the local level also provides a potential for more bottom-up collaboration, because the civil society can always form coalitions across boundaries and combine resources.  The tensions between calibrating the territorial scale of governance between being too low to be effective at ecological scales of environmental crises and too high to be able to engage people living in the smaller spaces of neighborhoods cannot be resolved in the abstract.  Rather, new institutional mechanisms of governance are needed not just at each scale, but equally to bridge across scales, rising from micro to regional and on to national and global scales.

5. What did you find most challenging, rewarding, or interesting about the review process?

We were told that many, many scholars were contacted, but that the number that accepted the invitation to review our paper was not initially sufficient. It really made us wonder whether our approach was perhaps too ambitious in crossing disciplinary lines, or just a matter of bad timing in terms of the the availability of reviewers.

Then when the review finally came, what was the most  interesting was that the reviewers recommended publishing without any changes needed, which was something neither of us had ever previously experienced.  So Hyung-Gu Lynn, who as Editor of Pacific Affairs  had been very carefully assisting in the overall putting together of this special issue on flooding, took another look to make sure that it was really the case, and suggested minor improvements to make the paper as it is now.  We are most appreciative of all of the steady efforts of the Editor to bring our research to the Pacific Affairs readers even while facing unexpected challenges along the way.

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