Building on Borrowed Time

Rising Seas and Failing Infrastructure in Semarang

2021
Author:

Lukas Ley

A timely ethnography of how Indonesia’s coastal dwellers inhabit the “chronic present” of a slow-motion natural disaster

Lukas Ley takes us to a place where a flood crisis has already arrived—where everyday residents are not waiting for the effects of climate change but are in fact already living with it. He shows how life in coastal Southeast Asia is defined not by the temporality of climate science but by the lived experience of tidal flooding.

In this careful study of keeping water at bay in Semarang’s floodplain kampungs, Lukas Ley takes us to a material landscape riddled with the legacies of maldevelopment. With historical precision and ethnographic nuance, Building on Borrowed Time shows us how an urban world of dysfunctional flood protection systems generates everyday, intensely localized burdens of chronic breakdown and disrepair that often hinder—and sometimes fully prevent—communities from engaging with future-looking efforts to mitigate the threats of a changing climate. A must-read for anyone seeking to better understand the complexity of urban flood management and community well-being on an ever-warmer planet.

Anne Rademacher, New York University

Ice caps are melting, seas are rising, and densely populated cities worldwide are threatened by floodwaters, especially in Southeast Asia. Building on Borrowed Time is a relevant and powerful ethnography of how people in Semarang, Indonesia, on the north coast of Java, are dealing with this existential challenge driven by global warming. In addition to antiflooding infrastructure breaking down, vast areas of cities like Semarang and Jakarta are rapidly sinking, affecting the very foundations of urban life: toxic water oozes through the floors of houses, bridges are submerged, traffic is interrupted.

As Lukas Ley shows, the residents of Semarang are constantly engaged in maintaining their homes and streets, trying to live through a slow-motion disaster shaped by the interacting temporalities of infrastructural failure, ecological deterioration, and urban development. He casts this predicament through the temporal lens of a “meantime,” a managerial response that means a constant enduring of the present rather than progress toward a better future—a “chronic present.”

Building on Borrowed Time takes us to a place where a flood crisis has already arrived—where everyday residents are not waiting for the effects of climate change but are in fact already living with it—and shows that life in coastal Southeast Asia is defined not by the temporality of climate science but by the lived experience of tidal flooding.

Lukas Ley is senior lecturer in the Institute of Anthropology (Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies) at Heidelberg University, Germany.

In this careful study of keeping water at bay in Semarang’s floodplain kampungs, Lukas Ley takes us to a material landscape riddled with the legacies of maldevelopment. With historical precision and ethnographic nuance, Building on Borrowed Time shows us how an urban world of dysfunctional flood protection systems generates everyday, intensely localized burdens of chronic breakdown and disrepair that often hinder—and sometimes fully prevent—communities from engaging with future-looking efforts to mitigate the threats of a changing climate. A must-read for anyone seeking to better understand the complexity of urban flood management and community well-being on an ever-warmer planet.

Anne Rademacher, New York University

Contents

Introduction: Tidal Flooding and Chronic Infrastructural Breakdown

1. Becoming: Semarang’s Swamp in Late Colonial Times

2. Stuck: Never-Ending River Normalization

3. Floating: Endurance and the “Quasi-Events” of Living with Flooding

4. Figuring: Environmental Governance and the Political Affordances of Infrastructure

5. Promise: Remodeling Drainage

Afterword

Acknowledgments

Glossary

Notes

References

Index