Moon on Ley, 'Building on Borrowed Time: Rising Seas and Failing Infrastructure in Semarang'

Lukas Ley
Suzanne Moon

Lukas Ley. Building on Borrowed Time: Rising Seas and Failing Infrastructure in Semarang. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021. 240 pp. $27.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4529-6289-4; $27.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5179-0888-1; $108.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5179-0887-4. 

Reviewed by Suzanne Moon (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-Environment (July, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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In Building on Borrowed Time, Lukas Ley offers an ethnographic investigation into how people in northern Semarang live with, collaborate around, and attempt to alleviate chronic flooding that affects their homes, businesses, and ways of life. At issue is the question of infrastructure and the complex role infrastructure projects play in their lives. Ley's ethnography adds to the expanding anthropological (and other) literature on infrastructure, offering a perspective grounded in the experiences of people in the Kemijen district of Semarang, including their engagement with major flood control projects, their individual efforts to cope with chronic flooding, and, most intriguingly, careful attention to the questions of why and how people remain in this difficult environment.

Ley's ethnographic research in Kemijen took place in the mid-2010s when heavier, more consistent flooding had become common in an area with a long history of seasonal inundation. By this time, flooding was making it difficult for people to keep their homes above water and their neighborhoods functional. The publisher's summary of the book suggests a tie-in to climate change. To be sure, climate change almost certainly plays a meaningful role in the contemporary challenges faced by the people of Kemijen. Yet climate change per se is not really the center of the story. Instead, Ley attends to the deeper history of flooding and the background of recurrent infrastructural ambitions alternating with neglect that characterize the area. He highlights how infrastructure problems always seem to never be solved. Ley offers a solid explanation for the water problems that have plagued this region (which I will not go into here) and then focuses on the everyday life of coping and engaging with the collective, individual, and government-sponsored infrastructural work intended to solve the problems of chronic flooding. The resonance with climate studies lies in its attention to how people live in chronically difficult environmental conditions.

Each chapter explores a thematic facet of the situation and offers a glimpse of different forms of problem-solving that residents are involved in. The first chapter, "Becoming," explores the history of flooding in this region of Semarang and the projects undertaken by the Netherlands Indies colonial government to solve the physical problems with water and what they took to be the “moral” problems of the people who lived in such environments. There was a considerable distance between colonial claims regarding "uplift" and the reality of geographical marginalization experienced by the residents of northern Semarang that continues to echo to the present day. Working with fragmentary sources, Ley does an excellent job piecing together both primary and secondary material to produce a valuable historical perspective on the region. By situating his study in solid historical context, he neither romanticizes the past nor sees present problems as stemming mainly from recent circumstances. His look at the rhythms and challenges of flooding over the course of a century effectively draws attention to the patterns that are playing out yet again in contemporary Kemijen.

Chapter 2, "Stuck," investigates what the author calls the never-ending process of river normalization. River normalization refers to technological projects undertaken by the government, such as drainage and channeling, to manage flooding and establish a relationship among people, water, and infrastructure that resolves what planners see as the moral and physical problems of the region. Ley points out that normalization projects have at times resulted in serious environmental consequences, including increased tidal flooding. "Stuckness," as I understand it (and I did find the author's meaning unclear at times), refers to how the government and the people of the district are stuck in patterns of thinking about the causes and consequences of flooding and the aims of normalization. These patterns have altered little since colonial times, despite significant changes in political circumstances, environmental conditions (including the built environment), and technological ambitions. Enduring assumptions and imaginaries constrain the sociotechnical imagination and establish stereotypical roles for residents in the process. Residents and their neighborhoods are frequently portrayed as socially neglectful or even criminal and external actors and technology are viewed as necessary agents to restore a physical and morally functional environment. A notable theme here, as in the other chapters, is the everyday ways that people respond to and try to overturn these stereotypes of lawlessness or "darkness" as they engage with these projects.

In chapter 3, "Floating," the author explores how people live with and adapt to flooding in day-to-day ways, including individual actions, like raising floors, building ramps or stairs, and otherwise "building up" to live more successfully with the constant threat of flooding. The author invokes the topic of maintenance, which has gained increasing scholarly attention over the last decade. Ley does a fine job vividly exploring how and why people adapt and examining their hopes and ambitions for their neighborhoods and themselves. It is, for my money, the most engaging chapter in the book because it turns our attention to the "small" projects of individuals. Such projects form the real backbone of day-to-day accommodation with the chronic difficulties of the area. It makes life possible despite, as well as with, "bigger" projects like river normalization or the massive polder project described in a later chapter.

Chapter 4, "Figuring," shifts attention from individual to collective undertakings among the people of Kemijen. As government projects of whatever kind sought to create participatory forms of water governance, neighborhood groups struggled to position themselves in relation to both infrastructure and government agencies to capture funds and intervene in these water projects. Ley contextualizes this story with attention to Indonesia's evolving modes of decentralized governance and considers the alliances that emerge (and the compromises involved) in the process of defining how participation will work. Of particular note, he pays attention to affect, how building and demonstrating a feeling for the environment among residents allows them to position themselves as trustworthy allies for water projects.

Chapter 5, "Promise," explores a large polder construction project and the reasons why this project ended up sidelining those who had worked hard to be included in participatory governance. Despite the hopes of district residents that things could go a new way (and the efforts they made to make this happen), Ley explores how it ultimately became "business as usual" in the polder project as residents were increasingly marginalized in the project in favor of more technocratic, top-down organization. Ultimately, he concludes that the polder project, like so many others and despite its promises, is no more than a temporary fix that, from his perspective, strands Indonesians in Semarang in chronic difficulties yet again.

Ley's study offers a valuable look at Indonesian politics and the complexities of living with (or despite) infrastructure. It engages meaningfully and thoughtfully with Indonesian politics and the promise and disappointments of participatory technology projects. It offers insight into the many different ways ordinary people cope with the complexities of these situations of perpetual crisis. Its relevance echoes far beyond Indonesia, especially as crises associated with broken or maladapted infrastructure become increasingly common. His careful attention to the perspectives of people themselves seen alongside and in contrast to their enduring, simplistic portrayals in modernizing imaginaries gives us a way to understand better the complex reasons that people choose to stay or go and the ways collective action forms and dissolves.

The ending of the book is somewhat downbeat about the prospects for Kemijen to break out of its dysfunctional cycle of temporary fixes. Although warranted by the study, the doom-and-gloom final pages leave us casting around for even an idea for a positive way forward. Notably, despite their disappointments, the people of Kemijen do not seem to have given in to despair. That is something worth thinking about.

Although this book has much to recommend, I encountered a few stylistic choices that, at least for me, impeded my ability to engage with the material as readily as I might have otherwise. The throughline of the study, as I have traced it here, is easy to lose track of due to the constant and, in my view, irritating interposition of theoretical asides. In some cases, they do provide insight, but too often, I found them digressive and distracting. The perpetual name-checking follows the style of a dissertation more than that of a polished and professionally edited book. I sense a desire on the part of the author to make sure that he is giving credit where credit is due and sharing his excitement about the insights he gained from these other works. If I am right, I am sympathetic yet unrepentant about my critique. A more streamlined narrative and disciplined and sparing choice of theoretical foundations that emphasize the author's unique contributions would have made this more readable and, in my view, ultimately more impactful.

Stylistic points aside (for, certainly, preferences may vary from reader to reader), this book offers valuable insights into life in and around infrastructure in chronic environments. It should not be overlooked as it offers valuable insights into contemporary problems that are relevant both for Indonesianists and others interested in how human societies face and engage with dysfunctional infrastructures and environments.

Citation: Suzanne Moon. Review of Ley, Lukas, Building on Borrowed Time: Rising Seas and Failing Infrastructure in Semarang. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL:

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