A threat lurks behind the clear sky of Jakarta during the Covid-19 pandemic, but there’s a huge doubt cast over the administration’s willingness and preparedness to anticipate the looming threat and its consequences.
By May Rahmadi
Around the second week of April 2020 the hashtag #langitjakarta, or Jakarta’s sky, became a trending topic in Twitter. The social media timeline was flooded with pictures of Jakarta with amazingly clear sky, a combination of light blue and white, with skyscrapers on the background.
There were also pictures clearly showing Mount Salak in the background, a rare sight indeed. The picture sharing activity lightened the somber mood amid the continuing flow of bleak news concerning cases of Covid-19 in Indonesia.
The Committee for the Phasing Out of Leaded Fuel (KPBB) – a non-governmental organization dealing with air quality issues– had already predicted this condition, linking it to the restriction on activities and movements in the capital, the epicenter of the new Corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) in the country, aimed at slowing down its spread.
“We predicted that in the first ten days (of the restriction on activity and movement) there would be a drop (in air pollution.) Therefore, we dared to predict (more drop). It is actually logical, with social distancing even though at the time it was not yet enforced on a large scale, it would mean a drop in activities, in transportation, the industry or the service sector such as in hotels, restaurant and tourism. They clearly would drop,” KPBB Director Ahmad Syafruddin told Ekuatorial.com, on Saturday (11/4).
But an analysis by KPBB showed that in the first ten days of the Large Scale Social Restriction (PSBB) or the March 16-25 period, air quality in Jakarta remains within an unhealthy category, with PM2.5 concentration averaging 44.55 µg/m3. The figure was obtain from an ambient air quality monitoring conducted by the US Embassy, and also monitoring of air quality at several points.
A marked difference was recorded when entering the second ten-day period of the restriction, or the March 26- April 4 period. Air pollution dropped significantly that air quality approached a healthier category. PM2.5 concentration showed an annual average of 18.46 µg/m3. Under the current government standard stipulated in Government Regulation Number 41 of 1999 on Air Pollution Control, the healthy standard for PM2.5 concentration is set at 15 µg/m3.
Based on PM2.5 exposure, the healthy category is within 1-15 µg/m3. A concentration of between 16-35 µg/m3 would come into a medium healthy category while concentration of 36-65 µg/m3 would be unhealthy and 66-100 µg/m3 very unhealthy. A concentration of more than 101 µg/m3is considered as dangerous. PM2.5, are invisible micro particles in the air that are up to 2.5 micrometer in size.
Since air quality was first measured in the capital in 1992, this was the first time Jakarta recorded air quality that nears the healthy category. “Never has such a drop happened. This is the first time it has happened for a busy city like Jakarta. Data have been registered since 1992, so in the past 28 years, air quality has never been in the healthy category. It did drop, but its position has always been within the medium healthy or unhealthy categories.”
Why air quality improves
When compared to the same period in the previous year, air almost doubled in quality towards the better. In the March 26-April 4, 2019 period, the annual PM2.5 average stood at 44.56 µg/m3 or at a level that was unhealthy.
According to KPBB, specifically for Jakarta, the restriction on vehicle movement has become a main factor behind the improved air quality. It affected air quality by up to 75 percent while industry affected some 22 percent and the rest was due to other various activities.
“Domestic activities, road dust, dust from garbage burning or from pollutants coming from places far from Jakarta. They could come from Cilegon, Cirebon, the northern Java coastal highway. Dust can be carried away by wind to Jakarta, that would depend on the wind,” Syafruddin said.
Puji Lestari, a researcher from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) os of similar view. Lestari said, air quality depends on a number of factors such as the source of the pollutant, meteorology and air flow rotation.
Data obtained by Ekuatorial.com, showed that the dominant source of pollutant for Jakarta came from the transportation sector. Traffic restrictions such as the even-odd number plate policy and car free days has lead to distinctive drops in pollutant concentration in the air.
Since it was enforced, the Work From Home policy aimed to curb the spread of Covid-19 also contributed to the improving air quality in Jakarta, pressuring down the PM2.5 concentration between three to 31 percent.
The head of the Jakarta Office of the Environment, Andono Warih admitted that the improving air quality in the past few weeks was in impact of the physical or social distancing policies but they were not the sole factors behind the better air quality. He also cited the weather factor; rain and wind directions.
“The rains that has fallen over the greater Jakarta area has also helped clean the atmosphere from pollution,” Warih said.
“Besides that, wind directions also have also an influence on the PM2.5 pollutant type, or dust particles of up to 25 microgram/m³,” he added.
Although transportation was a dominant factor in poor air quality, KPBB Director Ahnad Syafruddin warned that the role of industrial activities cannot be excluded. The government must periodically monitor the compliance of factories or power plants that are suspected of also contributing to air pollution.
“So it does not mean that the industry should be ignored. Industries remain there. In conditions such as now, motorized vehicles are restricted but industries continue to operate, in Pulo Gadung, there is a steel smelter that continues to operate. In Cibinong, there is a cement factory that remains in operation. Then, there is a steam-fueled power plant that continues to operate in Babelan. In Tanjung Priok there is steam-fueled power plant, in Muara Karang too and in Tangerang the Lontar steam-fueled power plants also remains in operation,” Syafruddin said.
There were also ships at the Tanjung Priok harbor. These ships played a very important role in affecting air quality because they use marine fuel – much like diesel oil but with sulfuric content of over 10,000 part per million (ppm.)
To respond to this, the spokesman of he Jakarta environment office, Yogi Ikhwan claimed that the authority continued to routinely monitor industries, at least once every six months.
“We routinely monitor this with an active supervision – our personnel conduct measurement—as well as passive supervision. All industries are under the obligation to report on the results of measurements by accredited laboratories. The metal industry and power plants must install CEMS (Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems),” says Ikhawn.
Ikhwan also said that the authorities in Jakarta are currently conducting a research together with ITB to look into air quality and to detail the sources of pollutants.
The improving air quality phenomena amid the Covid-19 pandemic is not only experienced by Indonesia. Report from the National Institute for Aviation and Space (LAPAN) said that based on satellite data models, similar conditions could be found in China and in a number of countries in Europe, such as Spain, France and Italy, throughout March 2020.
“Like in China, changes in air quality in Europe were monitored by the ESA (the European Space Agency) through the modeling of satellite data,” an official LAPAN report said. “March 2020 showed a drop in particulate concentration in the air compared to the same month in 2019 and this is due to the lock down that drastically reduced traffic,” the report said.
In Indonesia, a drop in air pollutants in the form of micro particles could be seen in western Indonesia during the Covid-19 pandemic. In general there was a drop in particulates (PM10) in March 2020 compared to the same month in the previous year.
Jambi city which in the previous year registered particulates of more 300 µg/m3 because of the forest and ground fires, now has dropped to 20 µg/m3. Similar conditions are taking place in Java too.
“This is possibly caused by the decreasing human, industry and transportation activities, not only the Indonesian territory but also in neighboring territories,” the report said.
Air quality post Covid-19 pandemic
Unfortunately, the improving air quality may only be temporary. KPBB Director Syafruddin doubts that the clean air and the improving environmental conditions would continue after the Corona virus had gone, because economically, much had been lost throughout the pandemic.
“I am certain that it will be business as usual again, a return to their old habits,” Syafruddin said. “Once the (Covid-19) curve flattens out, it may turn wild. So, it would be likely that they, the industries and the government ,will use whatever they can find as raw materials or energy to mobilize the economy so as to return to that five percent growth.”
Even more so because the policies and regulations of the government do no address the root of the problems. He took the example of government regulation in lieu of law Number 1 of 2020 on state finance and financial system stability to handle the Covid-19 pandemics. Syafruddin says regulation only deals with the superficial problems linked to short term economic impacts.
According to Finance Minister Sri Mulyani, the regulation was to respond to the spread of the Covid-19 that can potentially lead to an economic and financial crisis. It contained among others, budgeting policies, steps to safeguard health, assistance for impacted people, and the economic and financial sectors.
The fundamental problems such as redesigning of the development up to consumption pattern concept, which should have been completely reviewed, has not been done. Syafruddin said that the current condition should have provided the momentum to redesign the management of development that has leaned towards emission and energy consumption.
“The virus is actually nature’s response to the development policies, or operations of development and industries that are not nature friendly. One can say that it was because nature was cornered,” he said.
This is why Syafruddin has been calling on the public to be aware of the importance of changing their lifestyle. It does not have to be drastic, and could be done in phases. The call for reducing carbon footprint can also be spread among our immediate social circle or even through social media campaign.
Changing the lifestyle, using only as necessary and being more careful in purchasing or consuming anything, could be the way towards a balanced nature. Production of the industry would thus come down and when it does, the raw material exploited would also be reduced.
“As a society, we should control this. The government is pro-industry and industries only want that our system is a capitalist one. If there is no demand to buy things, they will provoke people to buy,” he said.
“Now, it should be the other way around. People must be strong and empowered so that people would not fall to these advertorial provocation or industrial promotions. The public would then be able to control the industry and the government,” Syafruddin said.
Doubts about improving air quality after the pandemic subsides is also expressed by the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI). This environmental organization regrets that the improving conditions only took place following the spread of a virus.
“What we regret is that it improved condition is because of the presence of the virus. It should have come out of our own consciousness. It looks like that after Corona, things would not improve. Just look, there are still much fossil energy in use, be that in the electricity sector or in transportation,” Walhi Urban and Energy Campaigner Dwi Sawung said when contacted by Ekuatorial.com.
Sawung even called on the government to halt all development that destroyed the environment. Instead of exploiting nature, the government should start to think about using renewable energy.
“And not rely on an economy, or extractive industries that are destroying the environment,” he said.
He added that communities and societies can independently start to prepare their own food stocks and security for their own needs. ”Because, this will last for long. It could be through consolidating all people in a neighborhood or village. Cooperation with other regions in bartering for their respective needs. Planting food crops on available land,” Sawung said. Ekuatorial.