Flowing Toxins elucidates how infrastructures arrange water supply, sewage, and property into shifting relationships that variably reproduce structures of urban inequality in Jakarta, Indonesia. Across various scales, perspectives, and dimensionalities, the drawing displays multiple narratives and material processes at once. There are many entry points to reading the drawing, showing the simultaneity and multiplicity of the ecologies through which the material landscape and structural inequality co-shape one another.
The main map depicts Jakarta, a megacity built over the Ciliwung River delta, home to more than 11 million people, traversed by 13 rivers and hundreds of canals, and bounded to the North by the Java Sea. One could begin reading the map at the NCICD1, a partially-built coastal protection megaproject that combines flood protection, in the form of an offshore seawall and an onshore seawall, and property development in the form of reclaimed artificial islands. The walls and reclaimed islands are depicted above the main map on the left-hand side of the drawing. The NCICD is meant to be a solution to Jakarta’s notorious land subsidence problem. The city is sinking, resulting in a receding coastline and increased flooding. Subsidence occurs due to unregulated groundwater extraction as wealthier strata of society and industry use private borewells to drill groundwater from deep aquifers. Due to a fragmented pipe network, non potable water, and lack of sewage treatment, groundwater is a cleaner and more reliable alternative to piped water in Jakarta. Meanwhile, industry returns the groundwater back to Jakarta’s canals, rivers and sea as contaminated wastewater (water pollution is represented in neon green). The drawings of apartment buildings, factories, and plantations represent three key sources of water pollution, which are domestic sewage, industrial effluent, and agricultural runoff.
Coastal kampung (urban villages) like Muara Angke, as mapped on the right side of the drawing, blown up in scale, are ‘informal’ often impoverished settlements home to traditional fisherpersons. The manipulation of scale and the hand-drawn dwellings provide a visibility to a community whose dwellings are largely unrecognized by the state and inaccessible to Google maps. As depicted at the bottom left of the drawing, the coastal kampung are often in poor environmental conditions, and in some places already squeezed behind the new NCICD seawall, which complicates their access to the sea. Through their proximity to polluted water and lack of formal land tenure, many kampung dwellers are framed as environmental nuisances and less than citizens. This renders them vulnerable to exclusion, pollution, and displacement.
Polluted water is a problem for kampung dwellers. They have historically been excluded from the piped water network, but formerly could rely on shallow groundwater and rivers for bulk use. Now, due to pollution, they must purchase their water from pushcart vendors for a disproportionately high percentage of their income while adjacent waterways become increasingly toxic. This also has the effect of damaging the marine ecology, causing declines in the species of fish that fishermen depend on.
Access to clean water and exposure to pollution has historically been structured and had a structuring effect on Jakarta’s stark inequality between kampung dwellers and propertied upper class. The fragmented pipe infrastructure and uneven access/exposure to different kinds of water emerges from a long-standing spatial pattern of stratification in Batavia (colonial Jakarta) that began under Dutch colonial rule. Europeans owned property in central areas with water and sanitation infrastructure, while native Indonesians built kampungs on ‘informal’ land, often along waterways, without official tenure nor access to the same water infrastructures. As Jakarta runs out of land and space and its population outpaces its infrastructural and ecological capacity, today this looks like massive property developments pushing kampung into increasingly marginal spaces. In line with this pattern, the NCICD threatens to displace coastal kampung and destroy marine fishing grounds. For many the wall and reclamations present a massive act of enclosure and displacement.
The top of the drawing illustrates cultivation and processing of pollution-tolerant green mussels, an important livelihood and source of informal work for many coastal kampungs and migrant fisherfolk. The mussel at top center represents the ecotoxicological relations of mussels as they absorb the pollutants that flow through Jakarta’s rivers into the sea. The bivalves bioaccumulate heavy metals and toxins from sewage-loving algae. Coastal people also use piles of mussel shells to create berms and build out the coastline to create more informal land, a way of adjusting to subsidence, eviction, and encroaching infrastructures. The mussel berms and the semi-permanent architectures built upon them are depicted at top right. Like subsidence, the mussels become embroiled in structures of inequality (land tenure, subsidence, and pollution). Mussels are another entry point to the map.
Three conditions that generate anthropogenic subsidence are the same structural conditions that many kampung dwellers identify as their biggest burdens: Unstable land tenure, access to fresh water, pollution of rivers and sea. Subsidence, in turn, gives rise to coastal infrastructure (such as seawalls, depicted at the bottom of the drawing) and property-making schemes that threaten to displace informal settlements. Opening up subsidence to landscape history shows how it emerges from enduring patterns of Dutch colonial rule where urban form structured racial and class inequalities through unequal access to fresh water and land tenure and proximity to pollution. Subsidence (and its uneven impacts) comes to be through historical inequalities tied up in the landscape: uneven access to water resources, exposure to pollution, and the spatial configuration of property rights. It is a geomorphological problem that at once is produced by and reproduces a more-than-human landscape of inequality.
1 Nation Capital Integrated Coastal Development, a Dutch-designed project
Text by anthropologist Kirsten Keller