Hard times amid Indonesia flooding

In Jakarta, floating dead chickens and bathing mix. A boat ride reveals the capital's misery.

Published February 7, 2007

JAKARTA, Indonesia - In a low-lying riverside district of the capital, dead chickens floated in the same filthy floodwaters that women used to bathe children and wash clothes.

Men sitting on rooftops or balconies dangled hooks in the debris-filled water for fish amid the stench of untreated sewage. An elderly woman called out to rescuers for food and water from her second-floor balcony.

Boys scavenged plastic bags and other recyclable waste to sell for a few pennies.

A boat ride with emergency workers Tuesday revealed the hardships residents are suffering five days after torrential rains unleashed floodwaters that have killed 44 people and chased hundreds of thousands from their homes in this city of 12-million.

While some parts of Jakarta began drying out under gray skies, water is still several feet deep in low-lying areas along river banks where tens of thousands of the city's poorest live in cluttered alleys.

The emergency workers delivered dried noodles, rice and water to residents of central Jakarta's Bendungan Hilir district, a mixed-income neighborhood. Indonesian soldiers paddled the boat past abandoned furniture, people wading in chest-high water with plastic containers balanced on their heads, and children swimming as if they were in a public pool. Some boys used a sofa cushion as a raft.

Flooding was still 8 feet deep amid the simple, two-story cinder block and brick homes. The district's main market, hospital and most houses were inundated, forcing residents to move to upper floors. The fear of their homes being looted kept many from leaving.

Indonesia's poor - a majority in the country of 220-million people - have borne the brunt of a recent string of natural disasters, including the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed more than 160,000 people on Sumatra island. This month's flood, the worst in the capital in recent memory, was no exception.

As many as 38,000 other people in the southwestern district, which borders some of the city's wealthiest high-rise apartments and sleek skyscrapers, are crammed into unhygienic shelters, officials said.

"We are sharing two toilets between 1,000 people," said Nelly, whose family of nine awoke in the middle of the night Thursday when the river overflowed its banks just 100 yards away.

The 25-year-old mother, who uses a single name, recalled rushing outside in panic as the water swept in.

"It came suddenly," she said. "The water was up to my neck when I carried my daughter out above my head."

Her 2 1/2-year-old daughter has diarrhea. They sleep on the floor of a classroom with 30 other people.

Government estimates of the number of people in shelters ranged from 221,000 to 430,000.

Health workers warned that medicine was running short, raising fears of disease spreading among the displaced.