Unevenness and the production of flood events in Jakarta

A new article by Bosman Batubara, Michelle Kooy and Margreet Zwarteveen, published in the journal Antipode, analyses the processes of uneven urbanisation by looking at flood infrastructure in Jakarta and unveiling its political dimension.

There are a number of ways to explain flood events and development of flood infrastructures in a city like Jakarta. We chose to explain flood events and infrastructure developments as our try to engage with the critiques from political ecology of urbanization (PEU) to urban political ecology (UPE). The first critique of PEU to UPE is that UPE’s scholars have the tendency to define right in terms of “access to” instead of “the production of”. The second critique is UPE’s scholars tend to study city, conceived as a bounded space, and neglecting the process of urbanization. This second tendency is called “methodological cityism”.

In our recently published article, we move beyond the question of “access to” flood-free settlements into the “production of” flood events and embedded unevenness. We identify this movement as parallel with Lefebvre’s movement from “the right to the city” into “the right to production of space”.

Neil Smith’s Uneven Development helps us all the way. The book, one of the classics in the field, brilliantly explains how the capitalist mode of production is working in the uneven development. We engaged with Smith’s theory to understand/explain the socionatural dynamics in Jakarta’s floodplain and beyond. We actually use only a fragment from Smith’s Uneven Development. As it was commonly used by many, the book is a combination of many sub-theories, such as “production of space/nature“, “the law of differentiation/equalization”, and “the theory of the production of geographical scale“.

As you can find more in the article, we picked out the tendency of differentiation/equalization in uneven development. The law goes more or less like the following. Under the capitalist mode of production, capitalism has the tendency to differentiate nature (or else), in this case Smith’s first- and second-nature, the un- and commodified nature, so as they fit the requirements of uneven development. Let me give an example. A place with abundant of fertile soil, under the uneven development will be developed into a farming area. A place with rich minerals content can be developed into mining area. A riverbank with the possibility of navigation has the tendency to be developed into a town/city. They seem as “natural” processes. However, there is something going on. The law of differentiation is working perfectly – to differentiate place into farming land, mining, and town. Mutually implicative, the law of equalization is also working no less perfectly. In the end, all places, be it farming area, mining, and town, are equalized as commodity – to be sold.

The dialectic of differentiation and equalization allows us to more fully grasp “the production of” unevenness in the production of flood events and the development of Jakarta’s flood infrastructure. To put differently, the article unravels the politics of the very often presumed apolitical flood risk management.

We use two on-going flood infrastructure developments of river- and coastal-flooding, Ciliwung River Normalization and National Capital Integrated Coastal Development, as our case studies to narrate the story. By linking the processes within and outside of the city, we examine the urbanization processes and avoid being subscribed to methodological cityism.

Flood in Bukit Duri. Behind the house is Ciliwung River with the ongoing River Normalization Project (Credits: Bosman Batubara, March 2016).

We explore the ways in which unevenness is embedded in the production of flood events, which in this context is understood as how the vulnerability of Jakarta to urban flooding is increased due to many changes, for instances, the decrease of forest cover at the upstream part of the catchment and the decrease of green area in the city. We excavate how the land-use conversion was mainly done by elites of the society. However, the policy discourse and infrastructure development selectively categorizing spaces – the law of differentiation – by pointing to the urban poor settlements in the riverbank area as the cause of flood events through clogging the waterways, and left the land conversion by the elites relatively untouched.

The development of flood infrastructures – an idealized fix by many in solving the flood events – is productive of unevenness within and outside the city by selectively categorization space, people, and resources. The law of equalization is working perfectly. In the city, the many types of land claims hold by the riverbanks settlers have been rendered as similar “invalid” both by enforcing official land claim and uniformizing land parcels into state’s land. Beyond the city, many places have been treated as mere amenities to the needs of flood infrastructure developments, as sources of raw materials (sand and cement). Thus, space and resources are equalized with labour and things, they are commodities.

Batubara, B., Kooy, M., & Zwarteveen, M. (2018). Uneven Urbanisation: Connecting Flows of Water to Flows of Labour and Capital Through Jakarta’s Flood Infrastructure. Antipode.


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