Tidal floods in Central Java put women's health at risk

Tidal flooding in Pekalongan as seen from above
Suara Merdeka
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Central Java, Indonesia

Tidal floods in Central Java put women's health at risk

PEKALONGAN, Indonesia _ Years of tidal flooding in this coastal city in Central Java has inflicted great damage on residents’ homes, forcing many to move. But it is also taking a toll on peoples’ health – and women, whose daily activities bring them into direct contact with contaminated floodwaters, face the greatest risks.

The tidal floods, known locally as rob, have inundated homes in nine of Pekalongan’s 27 urban wards, affecting around 9,300 people.

In 2018, seawater reaching up to 50 centimeters submerged 1,404 hectares, or almost a third of the city’s entire surface, official data show. Years of continuous flooding have also degraded sanitation, tainting water sources, disrupting clean water distribution and preventing latrines from functioning.

Most city residents now rely on a locally managed water service they pay for monthly to provide them with potable water. They also use communal latrines provided by the local Public Works office.

Skin irritation along with respiratory and digestive tract problems are the main health ailments found in flooded areas, according to records from local health and medical units.

While no one is immune to these problems, women in rob-affected areas typically suffer more since their duties both at home and work expose them to water contaminated by human waste and pollution.

The women who work at local batik factories, for example, often spend all day working in water almost up to their knees without any protection.

Local government data shows that in the nine subdistricts that see the most frequent tidal flooding nearly 54,300 women have either lost their homes, been exposed to diseases caused by a lack of clean water or contaminated water supplies or seen their access to clean water reduced.

Water collection facility
A resident of Bandengan subdistrict in Pekalongan City fetches water at a communal collection facility / Credit: Suaramerdeka.com / Isnawati

A double whammy for a sinking city

The cause of the tidal floods is two-fold: On one side are rising seas caused by melting polar ice. On the other is land subsidence due to residents’ uncontrolled extraction of deep groundwater.

Research dating back 20 years by a team on the Faculty of Earth Sciences and Technology at the Technology Institute of Bandung, shows that sea-level rise around northern Pekalongan averages around five millimeters per year. It is projected to rise by about half a meter over the next century.

At the same time, land subsidence in Pekalongan City was averaging between 10-25 centimeters per year, according to research the team conducted in 2018.

As local health and medical units continue to treat residents with rob-related diseases, the local and provincial governments are putting their resources into building an 8,020-meter dam they hope will stop the flooding. They’re also putting in place a moratorium on groundwater extraction to slow down land subsidence. Still, a long-term plan that includes prevention, recovery and rehabilitation, remains to be seen.

An Indonesia-language version of this story first appeared in Suara Merdeka on 19 Dec. 2019. It was supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network's Asia-Pacific project. You can read the full story in Indonesian here.

Banner image: A settlement in North Pekalongan has been besieged by flooding for decades due to rising sea levels and land subsidence / Credit: Suaramerdeka.com / Isnawati)

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