Dutch colonialism fatal for Jakarta?

Obstructed, flooding rivers, polluted river water and the consequently excessive usage of groundwater by which the ground sinks even more than the centimetres per year it already does, the water problems in Jakarta are severe (Van Dijk 2019). So severe, that Indonesia has announced that their capital city will be replaced from Java to Borneo (Van Dijk 2019, Watts, 2019).  It is relevant to think about where these water problems come from. To answer this question, history needs to be taken into account. In 1619, the Dutch VOC merchantman Jan Pietersz Coen built Batavia by gradually destroying Jayakarta, a trading port of the Banten Sultanate, and made this city the capital of the Dutch East Indies (Blussé 2008, 18). The city remained under Dutch control until the independence of Indonesia in 1945 (Weebers and Ahmad 2014, 545). This means that the Dutch have had a big role in the urban planning of this city and therefore in the circulation of ideas. Could there still be path-dependent traces of this urban planning, which contribute to the current water problems of Jakarta? To analyse this, this paper addresses the question: ‘What is the role of the Dutch colonizers in the urban planning of Jakarta and its current water problems?’

To begin with, the way the Dutch had built the city needs to be discussed. This has been done following the Dutch urban planning principles of Simon Stevin (Kehoe 2015, 4 & 10). In his ‘Ideal Plan for a City’ he stated that a city needed to be rectangular and gridded, meaning divided by blocks for houses, courts and markets (Weebers and Ahmand 2014, 549). Other important features of his city planning were forts with fortification walls, canals, locks, dikes, bridges and a city wall. This means that water already had a substantial role in the city from the start. This is visible by the many canals shown on the map of Batavia around 1652, included in the appendix. These canals functioned as bluespaces, meaning ‘places where a social activity has an edge condition, which is coastal and where the context is urban in character’ (Brand 2012, 64-5). In addition, the canals also had another function: to drain the sewage out of the city (Kehoe 2015, 8). However, they failed this function, as the Dutch had not taken into account the thicker silts coming from inland and the heavier precipitation in Indonesia (Widyatmi 2019, 8). Therefore, the canals were blocked and became stagnant and therefore the water became dirty and terribly smelly.

As a consequence, waterborne diseases were an important health threat in the city (Kooy and Bakker 2008, 1846). In the 1700s, the death rates were so high that the part of the city between the walls was called the ‘Graveyard of the East’ (Kooy and Bakker 20018, 1846). However, the canals were not replaced by a healthier alternative, but instead, the Dutch, who could afford it, flew to the ‘countryside’ outside the walls or to places like Noordwijk, Rijswijk and Weltevreden (Kehoe 2015, 8, Van Der Brug 1997, 901). The reason for this was that the link between the dirty water and the health risks in the city was not immediately made (Kooy and Bakker 2014, 65). Instead of cleaning the water, they tried to kill the bad smell, as they thought that was the reason for the health issues, which was not solving the problem (Kooy and Bakker 2008, 1846). Only from the mid-1800s, the correct link was made and the central government began to investigate ways to provide clean water to its citizens (Kooy and Bakker 2014, 66). From 1873 until 1920, 28 wells and 12 water reservoirs were constructed, which provided 750m³ clean groundwater to the citizens (Kooy and Bakker 2008, 2846).

However, only Europeans were seen as citizens and therefore a ‘spider-web’ of pipes arose within the European neighbourhood of the city (Kooy and Bakker 2008, 1846). As a consequence, the native population continued to use untreated surface water, which strengthened the distinction between them and the ‘superior’ Europeans (Kooy and Bakker 2014, 69). This strong distinction had existed from the beginning of Batavia. However, the Dutch propagated their dominance against the native population not so much with clothes, as other colonial rulers did, but with the way the city was built (Kehoe 2015, 3). The city wall, which originally was meant to protect against forces from outside, was used to separate the natives and other ethnics group from the Dutch, as those ethnic groups were mostly located outside the city. Also within the city, there was segregation by the lack of bridges and therefore the unevenly divided access to public spaces.

This way of thinking was unconsciously imposed to the native population and could be seen as a strategy of forgetting (Bhattacharyya 2018, 1 & 5). This is demonstrated by looking how it is applied in the water supply system. The new colonial government, which had an ‘ethical’ mentality, provided the natives access to clean water in the beginning of the 20th century (Kooy and Bakker 2014, 70-71). This access was only given when they forgot their own way of living by ‘urbanizing their traditional habits around water’ (Kooy and Bakker 2008, 1846). These habits consisted of the managing of kampungs, which were pre-colonial income structures in which the natives traded from person-to-person and supported themselves autonomously (Widyatmi 2019, 808). However, this way of living was seen as ‘insanitary’ and ‘problematic’ by the Dutch and therefore the native population needed to be ‘developed’ and ‘modernized’ (Kooy and Bakker 2008, 1846, Kooy and Bakker 2014, 71, Widyatmi 2019, 806). Only when they did this, they could get access to the clean groundwater, which was demoted to the natives, as the Dutch had invented a spring water system for themselves to stay superior (Kooy and Bakker 2008, 1849). However, by forcing the natives to use the clean groundwater, the idea of water conceived by the Dutch was forced upon the native population, forcing them to forget their own idea of water, in the same way the British concept of land was forced upon the Indian population in the colonial period of Calcutta (Bhattacharyya 2019, 8).    

This way of thinking has only recently been reversed by the post-colonial governance, as they addressed the real problem, cleaning the urban waters, something the Dutch had never done (Kooy and Bakker 2014, 76). Nevertheless, this has not been successful yet, as the water quality of the river is still significantly lower than the quality of the groundwater, as could be seen in the tables. Therefore the city is still reliant on groundwater today.                                        

To conclude, this paper has shown that the Dutch have had a significant role in the current water problems of Jakarta. First of all, the canals were already obstructed in that time and instead of solving the problem, the Dutch flew away to areas outside the city walls and let them just exist. As a consequence, they became polluted, which made the Dutch decide to make the city dependent on groundwater. Due to the segregated thinking, this was continued until the end of the colonial domination, which could be seen as the reason why present-day Jakarta sinks centimetres per year. Due to the fact this lasted so long, it is impossible for the current post-colonial to already have solved this dependency. Therefore, Jakarta is still relying on groundwater and therefore continuing to make the problems worse. There could be stated that the Dutch colonial strategy of letting the natives forget their natural way of using the water has turned to be fatal for Jakarta.


  1. Map of Batavia around 1652
Source: Mattheus du Chesne, ‘Plattegrond in vogelvlucht van Batavia,’ Atlas of Mutual Heritage (1652), accessed on March 28, 2019, http://www.atlasofmutualheritage.nl/nl/Plattegrond-vogelvlucht-Batavia.5072.

2. Table of river water quality in Jakarta

Source: Apip, Saut AH Sagala, Luo Pingping, ‘Overview of Jakarta Water-Related Environmental Challenges,’ Water and Urban Initiative Working Paper Series, no 4, (2015), 4, https://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:2872/WUI_WP4.pdf

3. Table of groundwater quality in Jakarta

Source: Apip, Saut AH Sagala, Luo Pingping, ‘Overview of Jakarta Water-Related Environmental Challenges,’ Water and Urban Initiative Working Paper Series, no 4, (2015), 4, https://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:2872/WUI_WP4.pdf.


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Author: Esmeralda de Zwart