It's difficult to get a real handle on exactly how polluted the air is in Jakarta. The data is, well, murky. The city government keeps track of pollution levels at several key locations throughout the city, but it only monitors larger-sized particulate matter known as PM10. The US Embassy has its own monitors, which track smaller, and more dangerous, PM2.5, but its air monitors are in South Jakarta. Experts say that pollution is far worse in the city's north and east.
About 60 percent of Jakarta's residents suffer from breathing problems associated with low air quality levels, according to a study conducted by Universitas Indonesia. Elevated pollution levels have also been linked to an increase in heart attacks and pneumonia.
So how bad is it? It depends who you ask. The city's own monitors, which, remember, only track PM10, say that the air quality is "good" today. The US Embassy's figures, which monitor PM2.5, say pollution levels today are "moderate."
Most of that pollution comes from auto exhaust, which, honestly, is no surprise considering the fact that Jakarta's streets often look like one big parking lot. Official data found that cars were responsible for 70 percent of the PM10-sized particulates in the air.
What's it all mean? We reached out to Dwi Sawunng from the environmental group Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Walhi) to find out.
VICE Indonesia: How was the air quality in Jakarta last year?
Dwi Sawung: Actually, last year wasn't as bad as 2015. It has to do with the climate. Last year. our dry season was a bit wet. It helped. But it doesn't necessarily mean it was good either. The air quality is actually still very bad.
Why is it so bad?
The source of Jakarta's air pollution is so many things. Cars are a big part of it. Fortunately, TransJakarta now uses the Euro 5 emission standard, so it's a bit better. Jakarta's pollution is so obvious during peak hours, when we leave for and from work. That's because of the use of private cars.
OK, so 2016 wasn't so bad. When was it at its worst?
In 2015, our Indeks Standar Pencemaran Udara (ISPU) hit 200. It broke the limits. It goes straight to unhealthy category. Under those circumstances, people shouldn't have been allowed to go out of their houses. We had a very dry, dry season. It would go five days without any rain. But it still wasn't as bad as what happened in China, where the pollutants are trapped because of the cold. Indonesia is a bit better because of the winds.
Based on the ISPU index, which part of Jakarta has the worst air quality?
We have a pretty varied ISPU across the city. It depends on the region and climate. For example, in particular parts of the city it can be raining while others dry. Pollution levels in places that rain are lower. But typically, North Jakarta has the worst air quality because of its heavy industry and transportation. The use of coal in industrial plants is commonly found in North Jakarta and East Jakarta. That still happens even though the government has prohibited it.
What can we do to have better air quality?
All we can do is focus on transportation and open spaces. Vehicle test must be done regularly. And we need to replace gasoline with high octane gas immediately. The 'Premium' [low-quality] gasoline, I heard, will eventually be banned in Jakarta, but so far it's still on the market. Now, the emission standard should be Euro 4 and Euro 5, but Indonesia still uses Euro 2. This year, our government promised to implement Euro 4 and 5. We'll see it it happens.
What about open spaces?
There are still very few green open spaces (Ruang Terbuka Hijau / RTH) in Jakarta. Ideally RTH takes up 30 percent of the city. Another example is the Ruang Publik Terpadu Ramah Anak (RPTRA) in Jakarta. These spaces [parks with areas for children] are mostly made of concrete, with no green plants in sight.
OK, but how bad is it really? Why isn't the city tracking finer PM2.5 particulate matter? Isn't it dangerous too?
Well we can see the air quality index. In the daytime, it averages around 'moderate' levels. If we use the parameter of PM2.5 it's around level 60. So in the normal hours, it's not actually all that harmful to your health, unless you have respiratory problems. But Jakarta's air quality does vary, depending on the number of vehicles on the road. And starting this year, the government said it would start using PM2.5 for the ISPU.