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Published: Monday January 20, 2014 MYT 5:11:00 PM
Updated: Monday January 20, 2014 MYT 5:11:47 PM

Floods force thousands to evacuate in Indonesian capital

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Monsoon rains have inundated parts of the Indonesian capital, forcing more than 30,000 people to evacuate and posing a challenge for its wildly popular governor, Joko Widodo, a possible presidential candidate.

Soldiers were deployed to help nearly 50,000 residents in the sprawling city of 10 million people, as floodwaters reached three metres (9.8 ft) in some districts, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency said.

Last year's rainy season brought Jakarta to a standstill, causing a river in the city to breach its banks and swamp the central business district, leaving thousands stranded and causing $580 million in damage to property and companies.

Heavy rains are forecast this week, potentially worsening floods which have killed seven people, mostly from electrocution, and forced thousands to seek refuge at temporary shelters, including schools and mosques.

Jokowi, as the governor is known locally, came to office in late 2012 with promises to improve the city's creaky infrastructure, strained by chronic floods and traffic. The presidential favourite has since launched a number of initiatives to alleviate flooding, including clearing riverbanks of illegal housing and rubbish, and creating more green spaces and drainage to absorb rainwater.

But until those efforts show results, he could face criticism over flood management, especially if the waters rise and more districts are affected. The floods have already caused about $80 million in damage, said the Disaster Mitigation Agency.

"Last year we started clearing the riverbanks and dredging the canals to allow water to flow more smoothly, but it's a slow process and the results will only show in five or 10 years," said Eko Hariadi, spokesman for the city administration.

Immense popular support has put Jokowi far ahead of rivals such as former general Prabowo Subianto and tycoon Aburizal Bakrie in opinion polls. But Jokowi has not declared his candidacy, nor has the party he is affiliated with, the opposition PDI-P, said whether it will back him. That decision rests with former president and party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the country's founding ruler.

Heavy rains also hit other parts of the archipelago, including North Sulawesi province where flash floods left 18 dead and more than 80,000 homeless last week.

(Editing by Jason Szep)

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