Hidden Messages in Water: Into the Minds of Vulnerable Urban Communities

March 5, 2021

Frequent natural hazards such as floods puts massive pressure to communities living in cities, particularly those in urban villages that are at risk of being displaced.

On a recent evening in Jakarta, the sun had just set, and the city’s residents scrambled to make it home before the 7 pm restriction to control the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a typical rush-hour scene like any other big cities in the world, until the cloud started gathering thunder and storm. Suddenly the rain came trickling down, and in no time has turned into a downpour that filled gutters and drains. As some of the city’s 12 million residents are preparing themselves for supper and slumber – after yet another day of surviving the pandemic – some were not so lucky, where they must grab their valuables and make a run for it, as puddles of muddy water in the street reached their doorsteps by the second.

While this fight-or-flight response may be foreign to many, it is the reality for several communities in Indonesia’s major cities including Jakarta. East Jakarta’s Kampung Melayu is one of the flood-prone neighborhoods. Sandwiched between sprawling shopping malls, and a busy terminal, with a garbage-choked river runs through it, the crowded area is no stranger to annual flooding. The recent floods in February submerged hundreds of houses as usual, with a staggering height of up to four meters. The community has grown accustomed to abandoning their houses when these floods occur, temporarily seeking refuge elsewhere, and returning home to realign their furniture when the floodwaters recede as a means of coping with these frequent hazards

When faced with adversity such as natural hazards, communities tend to re-occupy their previous settlements. Similarly, survivors from the 2004 Aceh tsunami ignored advice to relocate away from the coast and instead returned quickly to build back their society and businesses. While these examples embody a resilient spirit, it does beg the question: Why do disaster-affected communities always return despite the hardship?

Beyond direct support, it is important to unveil intangible aspects that hinders communities to access better living qualities. We needed to ask ourselves: was there something that we are missing? Through our exploration processes, UNDP’s Accelerator Lab Indonesia set out to diversify how we understand the issue by learning what it looks like on the ground and discussing it with those that are most vulnerable about their motivations and concerns.

‘Men of the Sea’ and the ‘River Keepers’

In our earlier post, we revealed several insights during our discussions with low-income urban communities in Jakarta. To understand the different coping and adaptation mechanisms, we engaged in conversations on virtual platforms with the community. Observing similarities and differences in communities from different water landscapes, such as ports and rivers, would enable us to identify potential drivers for behavior change.

We discovered that identity and social cohesion prevent communities from relocating. Communities living in coastal areas identified themselves as ‘Men of the Sea’, as their livelihoods are connected to fisheries. Meanwhile, urban village communities who were forced to re-design their housing to accommodate river catchment requirements proudly consider themselves ‘River Keepers’. Acknowledging the link between water landscapes and communities’ sense of identity, the Accelerator Lab is keen to test whether this emerging pattern of connection would be useful in possible reframing and improving ecological relationships in our future endeavors. 

Situated near a riverbank, ‘River Keeper’ communities have put an active effort and transformed their surrounding areas into lush landscapes despite limited access to clean water and soil.

“Our families have been here for the past few decades, we enjoy it here”

Majority of the communities in these hazard-prone urban villages are migrants who have developed a strong connection to the land they occupy, rather than their hometowns. Additionally, this sense of ‘feeling at home’ is reinforced with the established social relationship with their neighbors. “We are fully aware that experts might perceive our living conditions as unideal, however as citizens we have the rights to stay as our families have remained here for the past few decades, we enjoyed it here” stated a resident in an urban village in Pademangan subdistrict, North Jakarta.

In addition, proposed solutions such as newly built apartments located on drier grounds, rarely consider community livelihoods. While fishermen can easily carry their tools from home to sea, if evicted and forced to move to a vertical apartment, it could be more challenging and could result in potential financial loss. “I have a longing to live peacefully and seek decent income in order to move forward, I am aware that living is not only focused on surviving today” mentioned by another resident in Cilincing subdistrict’s urban village.

Aftershock of a flood in a port area in North Jakarta that resulted in increased level of conflict and violence for community members that decided to remain in the urban village.

It is clear that these communities must be included in the decision-making process to fully recognize subtle considerations such as social cohesion. Instead of providing singular support, it would be helpful to enable communities to develop their own innovations and jointly design sustainable solutions. By reducing the gap between policymakers and communities, the Accelerator Lab strives to create a space for co-creation to accommodate these challenges.

Looking Forward

The global sense of loss due to climate change could propel communities to work together to use their imaginative capacity to see into the future and device actions to be good ancestors.

‘River Keeper’ communities are confident that they can bring added value to include rivers as part of the eco-tourism plan in the city, whereas coastal communities are attempting to build partnership with stakeholders in the mangrove conservation area. Whether propelled by threats of evictions or overcoming recent floods, communities are gradually improving their relationship with their surrounding water landscapes. The next time torrential rains affect Indonesia, communities should be considered the cornerstone of the solution, rather than victims of ecological disasters. By being stewards and working together to ensure environmental sustainability, communities are on a promising path on being good ancestors. Inherently, social cooperation that these resilient communities showcased requires an imaginative capacity to see into the future.

In conclusion, investigating beyond the physical boundaries enabled us to understand the underlying relationship between low-income urban communities and their surrounding water landscapes. Whether tapping into the correlation between water-related identities or making sense of the social dependency among community members, the Accelerator Lab aims to utilize this understanding to enable action. For the next steps, we are curious to explore the problem from a different angle and to see if there is potential for encouraging positive behaviors and if future-oriented tools can help communities re-imagine how they are connecting with their environmental surroundings. 


Written by Aisha Marzuki, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab Indonesia

Huge thanks to Bas Leurs, Yulia Sugandi Suryo Utomo Tomi and Ranjit Jose for your feedback that assisted in developing the initial version of the blog and brought it to life.