︎︎︎  ︎ io@feifeizhou.com


Flowing Toxins

You are looking at a drawing that uses green mussels to elucidate the toxic pathways and entangled social and environmental injustices of Jakarta’s waterscape.

On the left you see the map of interactions between the city of Jakarta and Jakarta Bay, as the urban delta meets the Java Sea. Jakarta operates with a dualistic land tenure system where the urban poor often inhabit marginal lands with informal land rights, rendering them vulnerable to eviction to make way for formal property development.

Such is the case with Muara Angke - magnified and repositioned for emphasis to the right of the map across the long waterway. Located on the coast, it is home to a large informal settlement, or kampung, of small-scale “traditional” fisherpersons. Their self-built and semi-permanent structures (blocks hand traced from satellite images) remain invisible to GIS maps and largely obscured from the view of upper class society.

Jakarta’s many waterways, which flow toward Jakarta Bay, are severely contaminated by unfettered dumping of untreated wastewater. As depicted in the drawing by apartment buildings, factories, and plantations, three key sources of pollution are domestic sewage, industrial effluent, and agricultural runoff. Innumerable pollutants commingle into a nutrient-rich, heavy metal-laden soup. Small water channels connect to larger rivers, which drain into the sea (blue areas on the drawing). Meanwhile, inadequate solid waste disposal management leads to huge amounts of garbage piling up in rivers and at the peripheries of informal settlements (bottom of the drawing). Severely polluted surface water and unreliable piped water infrastructure has incentivized private drilling for deep groundwater. Unregulated overconsumption of groundwater by the wealthy causes rapid land subsidence in Jakarta — the city is sinking into the sea.

As a result, massive coastal protection infrastructures have been planned. However, onshore seawalls (black line across the coastline) and the planned offshore seawall (white lines in the sea) will enclose Jakarta Bay, trapping contaminated water and garbage into a giant lagoon, destroying the marine ecology upon which fishermen depend.

This, in a way, is already happening. In the past 30 years, wastewater and infrastructure have diminished the viability of fishing in Jakarta Bay as a practice of livelihood (see fishing boat at top left). However, the emergence of the Asian green mussel, locally known as kerang hijau has provided an alternative for many fishermen. As filter feeders, green mussels consume suspended particles in the water column, feeding on excess nutrients, toxic algae and sediment-bound heavy metals (see diagram on the top left of center). They not only survive, but thrive in toxic environments. The cultivation of green mussels using bamboo structures driven into the seafloor in shallow waters (top right of center) has become an important source of livelihood for thousands of Jakarta’s fishermen. Yet, as they cultivate, shuck, and eat the mussels, they are exposed to toxins that the mussels have absorbed, namely heavy metals and algae-borne saxitoxins (top right corner of the drawing). Meanwhile, the mussel processing generates vast quantities of discarded shells, which are either used as reclamation materials for creating new informal lands and combating coastal subsidence (top right corner), or piled up and trapped behind the new seawall (bottom left).

The use of neon green for representing toxins elevates the sense of toxicity from the whole drawing through the sharpness and brightness of the colour and this colour only.

Text by Kirsten Keller and Feifei Zhou.

“Flowing Toxins” is originally commissioned by Forum do Futuro, Porto, and published in Vita Nova, edited by Guilherme Blanc, Shumon Basar, Filipa Ramos, Jenna Sutela (Galeria Municipal do Porto/Bom Dia Boa Tarde Boa Noite, 2020).