June 16, 2023
JAKARTA – From dawn, 53-year-old Muhtar had been sweeping the side of the road in Rawa Belong, West Jakarta. But even in the early hours of his work day, dust and exhaust smoke billowed high from the asphalt and up his nose.
“This is unbearable,” he told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday. “Look around, the roads are packed with angkot [public transport minivans], cars and motorcycles.”
Muhtar’s lament is neither rare nor groundless; Jakarta crept into the top of a list of cities with the worst air quality last week, according to metrics gauged by Swiss climate technology company IQAir.
Jakarta recorded an Air Quality Index (AQI) score of 157, placing it squarely in the “unhealthy” category. Its dirty air consists of 67 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) of PM 2.5 pollutants, a class of fine breathable matter that is often made out to be the cause of various respiratory diseases.
The capital’s AQI score, used by the firm to measure air quality, is 13.4 times higher than the level the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe, and it is predicted to stay in this “unhealthy” zone for the rest of the week.
As a father of two, living in nearby Palmerah, Muhtar has worked as a staffer on the Public Facility Maintenance Agency (PPSU) payroll, widely known as the “orange troops” for the color of their uniform, for nearly four years.
And every single year, he is convinced the city’s air quality has continued to worsen. “When the time comes for me to quit this job, I want to move out of Jakarta. I just have to,” Muhtar said. “It’s tough for my kids, the air pollution here is getting crazier by the day.”
The city-sweeper is not alone in his worries. Others, like ojol (online ride-hailing) driver Heriyatin, 40, also insisted that the city’s air has gotten more unpleasant by the month; a concern that his fellow drivers share.
“I’ve been a GoJek driver since 2016, and the change [in the city’s air] is apparent over the years,” the Kemandoran, South Jakarta-based driver told the Post on Tuesday.
The increase of cars on the road is one key factor for this eroding of air quality, Heriyatin said. He was even thankful that his employer had given the mandate for drivers to wear masks to shield them from the dust.
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the air felt fresher. But in this post-pandemic year, it is more polluted [because] there is more dust and more exhaust smoke, not to mention the stinging heat,” he said.
Data from the Jakarta Statistics Agency shows that there are over 26.3 million motorized vehicles in the capital, a more than 1 million rise from the previous year.
A spokesman of the Jakarta Environment Agency explained on June 9 that, though it is estimated that conditions would start improving in September, Jakarta’s air quality would continue to worsen periodically as the country enters the dry season from May to August.
Furthermore, the onset of the hotter El Niño climate pattern has experts worried about making the air quality even more unbearable than it already is.
Climate activists have continued to criticize the lack of improvement in Jakarta’s air quality following a 2021 district court ruling declaring the government guilty of negligence for failing to tackle chronic air pollution.
The city’s polluted air might be a common sight for some, but for 24-year-old Ahmad Robangi, who hails from Wonosobo, Central Java, the difference between the two cities’ air quality could not be any clearer.
“I really wanted to go back home when I first got here. In Wonosobo, the air is very different,” Ahmad said on Tuesday. “In Jakarta, the air actually feels unhealthy when you breathe it in.”
Ahmad worked as a private security guard in Kuningan, South Jakarta, in 2022 for half a year before going back home. After getting engaged in Wonosobo, he went back to Jakarta while his fiancée stayed back in his hometown.
“[The pollution] is part of the reason why she doesn’t want to come join me,” Ahmad said, smiling. “Vegetables are also fresher back home because of the air quality.”
Muhtar is also currently crafting an exit plan; he has been saving up money to buy a house in Tigaraksa, in Banten’s Tangerang regency. Now, the empty house waits patiently for Muhtar and his family to move in.
“We have a house near Tigaraksa railway station, and there are rice fields around it, so we will be closer to nature, which is a great thing,” said Muhtar, who is a native of Sumbawa Island in West Nusa Tenggara.
For the time being, however, he has no other choice but to breathe a sigh of polluted air while pulling up his orange cloth mask higher on his face as he cleans the streets.
“What else can we do? Jakarta’s always like this,” he said.