Danger of getting used to floods



    Feb 12, 2015

    Danger of getting used to floods

    EVERY time the rainy season hits, flooding, landslides and tropical disease outbreaks occur like annual routines.

    Living on a vast archipelago located on a very risky piece of earth, Indonesians can hardly avoid the fact that natural calamities are deeply embedded in their daily lives.

    This week alone, severe flooding has struck twice in consecutive days, and the Jakarta authorities have declared a flood emergency.

    Though many studies have confirmed flooding is Jakarta's "geographical fate", it is not entirely natural: A complex social and political process has made the city more vulnerable to disaster.

    Disaster mitigation and risk awareness are far away from our mindset in dealing with environmental risks. Worse, commitment to harming the environment as little as possible, or to generate positive impact for environmental sustainability, is barely practiced. The number of victims and the amount of material loss rise almost every time the flooding comes.

    Let us distinguish between hazard and risk. Hazard is anything that can harm people and the environment. Hazard is objective (manifested) or subjective (contains a systematic evaluation that makes the outcome more tolerable).

    We all agree that the tsunami and earthquakes in Aceh and Nias were harmful, but construction of a nuclear reactor might produce diverse views regarding the danger. Environmental disasters are mostly hazards, not risks in themselves.

    In Jakarta, the flood, or the hazard itself, is starting to be oddly perceived as something very ordinary, something that happens routinely every rainy season.

    As a resident of Petogogan, Kebayoran Baru says, when the water level reaches 50cm, he is not surprised. It is appalling that people are getting used to floods, as they no longer see flooding as something threatening.

    Meanwhile, constant exposure to hazards can lead to greater and more damaging future risks. Jakarta faces the possibility of serious landslides and rising sea levels. The banality of environmental disaster also indicates that a hazard is socially constructed.

    Despite dead bodies, damaged houses and disrupted daily lives, understanding risk requires undergoing a process that is at once social, political and cultural.

    Unlike hazards, understanding risks at least incorporates two layers: probability and effect. Risk indicates the likelihood of certain diabolical events happening in the future, causing massive destruction.

    As Ulrich Beck argues in his book, Risk Society: Towards A New Modernity, risk is "the dark side" of modernity, a logical consequence of the growing scientific and technological developments leading to excessive exploitation.

    Risk thus has grown beyond time, space and social class. In a risk society, Beck adds, everyone can be vulnerable.

    Beck expresses his concern regarding the transition from traditionalism to modernity, which he claims is unhealthy. Modernisation has produced individualism, liberal democracy and overt belief in science, which are principles subsequently transformed into greed and negligence.

    Environmental risks, Beck says, are the negative outcomes of modernisation. It thus has a different nature from other risks, in particular ways. First, it is very complex and uncertain, comprises causal correlation and produces multiple consequences.

    Thus, it is a combination of manufactured (human-caused) and external (nature-caused) risks. Jakarta flooding is not only caused by the fact that Jakarta is a delta city, but also by poor city planning and the people's negligence regarding environmental issues.

    Second, environmental risks are a combination of individual wrongdoings and long-term contact with various hazards. Yet, people constantly blame the government, while disregarding their littering and other environmentally destructive behaviours.

    As the impact of risks are often delayed, such behaviour remains. Thus, mitigation is almost impossible without everyone's willingness to act.

    Lastly, as Beck emphasises, like wealth, risks are not evenly distributed. The ones who suffer the most are not necessarily the same people contributing to the risks. In Jakarta, the construction of shopping malls, apartments and large business areas are not properly regulated. The poorest are left to deal with the aftermath.

    Alas, the public discourse with regard to environmental disaster focuses on debate over who is to blame and whether a disaster is a national or local responsibility.

    The most shameful reactions involve politicising the disaster. We are still reluctant to discuss disaster mitigation, promoting pro-environmental behaviour or reforming city planning.

    We may need to ponder Beck's "reflexive modernisation" idea - a modest premise that embodies the spirit of reform rather than exploitation. Science and technology are no longer solely used as tools for exploiting natural resources, but more as instruments to politically and economically manage risk.

    Science and technology can be harnessed for adaptation, sustainability and precautionary principles instead.

    Building more canals and floodgates is useless if people continue to litter, or if Jakarta officials have no commitment to reforming their urban-planning policies.

    There is no instant solution for Jakarta flooding. Mother Nature is fighting back; if we do not move and take action, something nastier is waiting ahead for us.