By Dana Drugmand
Victims of disastrous flooding in and around Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, the result of torrential downpours that killed more than 60 people and displaced more than 175,000 earlier this month, launched a class action lawsuit Monday against the Jakarta government. It is the latest example of victims of extreme weather disasters turning to the courts for relief, as damage costs overwhelm and governments fail to protect citizens from the increasingly severe impacts of the climate crisis. From Australia and southeast Asia to the United States, litigation in the wake of climate disasters is on the rise.
The lawsuit in Indonesia, filed Monday at the Central Jakarta District Court on behalf of 243 flood victims, is led by a group called the Jakarta Flood Victims Advocacy Team, which says the city government not only failed to provide early warning of the floods, but delivered an ineffective emergency response with help coming too late or not at all in some areas. The plaintiffs are demanding compensation of around $3 million.
This is not the first time that Jakarta’s government has been sued over a flooding disaster. In 2007, a court ruled in favor of the government in a similar class action suit brought by flood victims.
The victims’ lawyers in this lawsuit say they have evidence of government negligence in flood prevention and mitigation. But city officials told Channel News Asia that the sheer amount of rain—nearly 15 inches in one day, the largest one-day total since records began in 1886—overwhelmed pump systems and nothing could be done. Scientists say this kind of intense rainfall is to be expected with climate change, as warmer air holds more moisture.
Flood Victims from Texas to Australia Sue for Damages
People in Houston who were devastated by the massive flooding of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 recently won a case against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for leaving them vulnerable to the rising water. That storm devastated Houston and dumped more than 50 inches of rain, causing massive flooding and $125 billion in damage, breaking records for the largest rain event in U.S. history.
While some flood victims were aided by flood insurance payouts provided by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), many more were left stranded as the program has been cash-strapped and unable to cover damages from increasingly large-scale disasters. According to the Federal Emergency Management Authority, which administers the flood insurance program, about 92,000 Texas residents received flood insurance payouts in the wake of Harvey, totaling $8.92 billion. The NFIP is chronically underfunded, with disasters outpacing its ability to pay out rising claims. Last July, Congress passed a stopgap measure to keep it running temporarily, but even after Congress canceled $17 billion of its debt in 2017, it still owes more than $20 billion.
The judge ruled in the class action suit against the the Army Corps of Engineers that the agency is liable for flood damage because it intentionally designed the reservoir system to flood their properties.
In Australia, a court came to the same conclusion in a similar class action case brought by victims of the 2011 Queensland floods. The court found the government negligent in the design and management of dams that were breached during the flood, inundating about 23,000 homes and businesses. The floods killed more than 30 people and cost up to $30 billion.
Australian Bushfires Claim Next?
Australia is currently reeling from extensive bushfires, some of the worst in the country’s history, with millions of acres burned and more than a billion animals killed. The disaster, which scientists say has been intensified by climate impacts like high temperatures and drought, is expected to cost billions of dollars.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has received harsh criticism for his handling of the crisis. He not only left for a vacation in Hawaii as the fires raged, he has also refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the climate crisis and continues to defend the government’s promotion of coal.
An online petition has circulated in the wake of the bushfire disaster calling for a class action lawsuit against the Morrison government. The petition, which has more than 60,000 signatures, references the recent court victory in the Netherlands forcing the government to make deeper cuts in carbon emissions, and says Australian citizens should bring a similar suit against their government.
“The government has failed to increase its emissions targets, failed to increase the renewable energy target and failed the people of Australia. We are now witnessing the effects of the climate emergency first hand, and still the government sits on its hands,” the petition states. “It’s time for the people of Australia to act and force a class action against the government for its inaction.”