Rising Waters

by Jonchy

The Indonesian word for flood is banjir.

In Jakarta, my hometown and the nation’s capital, the banjir comes so regularly that it is simply seen as a part of life. The rainy season begins in November and with it comes inevitable floodwaters. During this time, everyone places their valuables on high shelves and move vulnerable furniture on top of spare beds. 

I loved the banjir as a child. When it was low, it turned our street into a large puddle in which I could slosh around—provided I had my blue rubber boots on and didn’t stay out too long. Some days, as my mother watched dutifully through the window, I would go out in search for stray branches floating in the street-turned-river. I’d pick an acceptable one to be my sword. I’d imagine myself as a pirate in shallow waters, defeating an improbable number of invisible enemies on my way to shore.

On car rides to the center of the city, I’d imagine that we were in a tightly packed convoy of ships, sailing through a brown ocean in search of new land.

I appreciated the banjir too, for its habit of arriving sneakily in the night to fill up my primary school. I went to an English-speaking school in East Jakarta, some forty minutes away. This is a short distance in the context of notorious Jakarta traffic—which, at its height, can stall a city-center trip by two hours. 

Communication between the school and students’ parents could be lacking at times. Some days, my parents had the foresight to call ahead after a particularly stormy night to check if classes were canceled. More often than not, though, I’d be driven to school in the rainy months only for us to discover that rainwater had risen to shin-height on campus. This happened because the school was in a sort of valley and—like most of the Greater Jakarta area—was terribly irrigated.

On those days, a security guard would wade to us in his boots and tell us that class was cancelled for the day. I’d be happy, of course. I liked school, but not as much as reading chapter books or playing my daily allotment of computer games—this was 15 minutes, strictly policed by my mother.

My Korean mother pronounces it “Ban-jil,” having been born into a language whose “l” and “r” sounds are barely and blurrily distinct. In the cruelness of childhood, I made fun of her for it, though I would give anything now for her multilingualism. My Umma speaks three languages fluently, while I can only offer stunted approximations of her native tongue, or of my father’s. 

As an adult and an immigrant I’m embarrassed that I am conversational but not fluent in the languages my parents passed down to me, even though they were spoken in the household. Though it was true that we spoke English the most—partly because it was my parents’ first shared language and partly because it was key to a successful future in the Western world—both hangeukmal and Bahasa Indonesia certainly had a place in our home.

When more than one language bounces around a household, it is inevitable that crosslinguistic jokes enter everyday speech. A favorite growing up was the conflation of Appa, the Korean word for father, and apa, the Indonesian word for “what.” Apa, Appa? was my stock response if my dad ever asked me a question, even if I’d clearly heard what he’d said. He humored me even after the sorry pun had worn itself out, always cracking a small smile in acknowledgment.

I’m not sure if we ever joked about the banjir, but I can imagine how it would’ve gone down. The word ban in Korean means “half,” and so the quip might have gone something like this: the ban-jir is up to my knees! I hope we don’t get a full-jir, that’d be up to my waist! My mother would have laughed gleefully, instead of giving me the groan I would have rightly deserved. 

Recently, I’ve learned that everything I was taught about the banjir is only half-true. 

I remember wondering aloud about why it flooded so much where we were. My parents would tell me it was because of what’s going on uphill. By this, they meant the deforestation in Western Java. I learned vaguely as a child that they were cutting down too many trees in Bogor, and that for some reason it made the banjir come upon us more heavily.

I know a little more now. I know that the logging industry uphill caters cheaply to the interests of Chinese companies, and that trees are often toppled to clear space for new apartments and factories. Apparently, dead roots don’t suck up water very well, so when the rains come down in the West the banjir surges down on Jakarta unopposed. 

Deforestation is one part of the reason the waters rise and fall in Jakarta. But there are other things that summon the banjir to my city as well. Larger, darker forces are at play. I’ve grown to see that the banijr I so loved in my childhood is more sinister than I’d first realized. 

I know now that the floods are getting higher because Jakarta is sinking. In the past ten years, the land in the coastal north of the city has dipped 2.5 meters—a full foot greater than the height of one Shaquille O’Neil. Jakarta is sinking because that is what happens when rampant urbanization sprawls outward and upward without a steady infrastructure to hold its weight.

While I have fond memories of my childhood, there are many things about Jakarta I am glad to have left behind. I am still traumatized by my hometown’s standstill traffic, where spending an hour to move your car forward by a mile is not unheard of. I remember getting lost in the gaudy multi-story shopping malls which populate the city, crying and headachy in the neon lights of retail stores. 

People from all over Indonesia come to the big city to make something of themselves, or at least to make the sort of money that will go exponentially farther when they send it back to their families at home. There are too many people, and too many buildings built to house and entertain them. Jakarta is a city of gridlock and excess, and it is caving in on itself.

The literal weight of urban development is sinking my city, but there is more to it than that. Of coastal metropolises, Jakarta has one of the worst infrastructures for water distribution. Piped water comes at ridiculous cost, and only serves half of the city. This leaves the poor and the corner-cutting rich to drill illegal wells that tap into natural aquifers. Stifled by concrete, the aquifers have trouble filling up again. The weight of too-many buildings press down on the empty space left behind, leaving parts of my city as valley-like as my primary school, as pits for the floodwaters to fill in.

I worry that the sinister banjir might drown my city. But these are not the only rising waters that threaten Jakarta. Somewhere I have never been, far from my equatorial context and even from where I live now in New England, something called the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting very quickly. It is filling up the ocean and causing it to rise, even as far away as Indonesia. When you draw a bath, doesn’t the bathwater rise up evenly, and not just on the faucet-side? This is why the rising waters are creeping up the coast of North Jakarta.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting because of the sum total of all the coughing cars and spewy smokestacks and burning forests in the world, and because of the masses of cows that leak methane from their asses. The gaseous outputs clog the atmosphere and, increasingly, cause more heat from the sun linger by earth than we’d like. Jakarta’s gridlock plays a part. The neon malls play a part. So too, does oil drilling in Dubai and factory farms in Northeast China.

The government of my city isn’t as concerned with climate impacts of far-flung cities as it is with the reality that the floodwaters are threatening to invade us from the outside. They are building a wall to try and keep the waters out. They call it the Coastal Wall, and they’re building it extra-high because they know that it’s going to sink like the rest of the city. And as they build this wall they are preoccupied with dreams of an even more ambitious solution: the Great Garuda, a seawall of reclaimed land in the shape of its mythic-bird namesake, the national symbol of Indonesia.

There is something romantic about invoking a mythic power in tackling a great elemental threat. But, behind this grand vision of a guardian bird protecting its city from the onrushing ocean, is the same human hubris that got us here in the first place. The Great Garuda is a 40 billion dollar project which invites developers to build more malls and sleek condominiums upon the new land they will summon up from the ocean. Corner-cutting and corruption may leave the newly risen land carelessly formed, unstable and unsafe. Perhaps the deepest problem is that the venture does nothing to address the lack of piped water systems which cause my countrymen to drill wells that sink the city. The wall, meant to keep the water out, may only serve to keep the banjir in, leaving my city to someday filled to the brim—a post-climate Atlantis.

As a member of the diaspora, I love and I hate my city. I cherish my childhood sloshing in the streets, but cannot shake the panic of being trapped in a crowded mall. I feel an affinity to my birthplace and my people, and yet speak my mother tongue inexpertly. I think and worry about Jakarta, and write it out in English. I remember the banjir fondly, but hate it because it is a harbinger of destruction.

Like the sinking city of Jakarta, I am threatened from without and within. I’ve internalized a hybrid culture, through which I crack cross-linguistic jokes that make my mother laugh and my father smile. The longer I live on my own, though, the more language I lose and the more I find myself assimilating. I appreciate the values of freedom and the ethnic and cultural diversity I find in America, my adopted country. And yet, I understand that I am a resident alien, suspect to changes in immigration policy from an immigrant-suspicious administration.

Jakarta remains in me. But it is also a mirror to the world. The waters are rising everywhere because of Jakarta traffic and Korean barbeque and the same fuel-heavy flights that first brought me to America. Miami Beach is sinking, as is Shanghai, as is New Orleans, as is Manila and Rio de Janeiro. Just as in Jakarta, no one is really equipped to deal with it. I preoccupy myself by worrying about identity and parsing through my childhood, while corporations keep building heavy buildings and all people continue on with their lives.

No one wants to think about the waters creeping up our coasts, or to admit that we are sinking, or to consider that we may soon be submerged.

We will blink, and the water will be up to our waists.

Jonchy is an immigrant most worried about anthropogenic climate change—that deeply entangled reality which threatens to decimate our planet. He is particularly interested in the meaningful interplay between text and image, and often pairs his prose with scratchy sketches or family photographs. He lives on the North Shore of Boston, where he works with his hands.