As floods loom, Indonesians fear shelters are potential COVID-19 ‘breeding grounds’

JAKARTA (CNA) – Yusuf, who lives in the Jakarta suburb of Bogor, is dreading the La Nina floods which are expected to hit around year end.

The 42-year-old who goes by one name still remembers seeking refuge at his next-door neighbour’s house on January 1 this year when his own was flooded.

They ended up getting stuck at the second floor of his neighbour’s house for nearly 20 hours with little to eat, as the flood-prone neighbourhood continued to be submerged in knee-deep water.

Eventually, both families decided to head over to an evacuation centre, where they stayed for two nights.

“I am worried that I would have to do that again this year,” Yusuf told CNA. “I worry that a cramped evacuee shelter would be a breeding ground for COVID-19. I have two small children, you see. But at the same time, we cannot stay at home.”

File photo shows a man pushing his scooter through flood water in Jakarta. PHOTO: CNA

On January 1, water levels on the Cileungsi River, which cuts through two of Jakarta’s suburbs Sentul and Bogor, started to rise just after dark.

It had been raining heavily that day on the hilly upstream areas and residents recalled seeing the river raging faster and faster, bringing with it debris of fallen trees and mud.

The water level got so high as the night went by it nearly destroyed a bridge which on a dry season stood at least 6m from the surface of the river.

At 10pm, the river began to spill onto the streets and roads of Villa Nusa Indah housing complex, five kilometres from the eastern edge of the Indonesian capital, inundating homes as far away as 200 metres from the riverbank.

Hundreds of homes were submerged in water, in some areas up to three metres deep. Three thousand people including Yusuf, who do not have the luxury of owning a two-storey home, had to seek refuge at nearby mosques or look for shelter elsewhere.

The short, bespectacled man with a salt-and-pepper beard said he is unsure what to do if another flood hits while the country is still struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

And experts predict that the next flood could be bigger than the last one because of the La Nina weather phenomenon. At least 15 per cent of Jakarta and its surrounding suburbs were inundated in January. About 173,000 people had to evacuate in a series of floods, which also killed 66 people.

The Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) predicted that the La Nina weather phenomenon will bring heavy rains which are 20 to 40 per cent above the intensity seen in previous rainy seasons.

“The peak (of La Nina) is predicted to occur between December and February. Therefore, we must brace ourselves (for natural disasters) in December, January and February,” BMKG Chief Dwikorita Karnawati told a radio talk show on October 25.