Stay or go? Jakarta’s coastal communities mull adaptation or migration as the city sinks

As Indonesia’s capital is slowly claimed by the Java Sea, thousands of people are losing their homes and are increasingly vulnerable to disease and fresh water scarcity.

A family living in the northern part of Jakarta, the world’s fastest sinking metropolis, gets on with life as their home is flooded.
A family living in the northern part of Jakarta, the world’s fastest sinking metropolis, gets on with life as their home is flooded. Over the past 25 years, parts of the city of 10 million have sunk by up to 5 metres. Subsidence has mainly been caused by groundwater extraction compounded by rising sea levels. Image: /Flickr

Over the last decade, Muara Gembong district on the northeastern tip of Jakarta Bay has slowly receded into the sea. Villages in the area are routinely affected by tidal flooding. Some are now permanently submerged.

The people of Pantai Sederhana, one of the many fishing villages in Muara Gembong, have had to put their homes on stilts to adapt to rising water levels. Many have relocated. Only 35 people are left in the village.

Coastal erosion and tidal flooding in the Indonesian capital’s northern fringe has brought growing health problems. “Coastal erosion is affecting the children,” said Imam, a local fisherman who has lived in Pantai Sederhana for more than 40 years. “As more water enters our homes, we have seen an increase in skin problems and respiratory illnesses. One time my neighbour’s baby fell into the flood water that entered their bedroom. Luckily he was rescued.”

Jakarta is the world’s fastest sinking metropolis. Over the past 25 years, the worse-hit areas of the city of 10 million have sunk by up to 5 metres. Subsidence has mainly been caused by groundwater extraction, unchecked development and compounded by rising sea levels. 

“Groundwater extraction has caused Jakarta to subside by up to 4 centimetres a year. The groundwater table has been completely exhausted,” said Abdul Muhari, head of data for the Information and Communication Centre at the National Agency for Disaster Countermeasure, Indonesia’s disaster relief agency. “Buildings standing just above the water line are sinking. If we want to reduce the risk of further sinkage, we have to stop groundwater extraction,” he said.

But government action to address the problem has been slow. The proposed relocation of the capital to East Kalimantan is often touted as an instant solution, but vulnerable communities that have received scant support from the authorities have been left with little choice but to adapt to worsening conditions or move.

As well as health issues, local fishermen have suffered economic losses due to the destruction of local fishponds. Pantai Sederhana was once dubbed “dollar village” due to its abundant catch, but it now become economically fragile as a result of climate-related disasters such as flooding and storms. 

In the neighbouring coastal district of Kalibaru, one of Jakarta’s most densely populated and poorest districts, fishermen say they’re increasingly wary of sailing because of the unpredictability of the weather and worry about their safety at sea, according to Rizqa Hidayani, programme manager at Kota Kita Foundation, a non-profit that helps urban communities adapt to climate change.

Another factor pushing local communities away from the area is pollution, which is primarily caused by industries operating around North Jakarta. Fishermen are being forced to sail further out to sea to get clear of polluted waters, which increases fuel costs. 

Fuel costs, which have increased over the last year, and the increasing scarcity of clean water, have meant that coastal communities are struggling to make ends meet in one of Indonesia’s most vulnerable areas to climate change.

The sinking of Jakarta is also affecting demographic trends. In Kalibaru and other coastal communities in Java, escalating climate uncertainty and declining fish stocks have led to an increase early marriages. Many struggling parents view marrying off their daughters at young age – some are married as teenagers, after graduating from junior high school – as a way to ease their financial burden.

“The environmental crisis in Kalibaru is deeply interconnected with other socio-economic challenges, including limited access to basic services and education, exacerbated by an alarming rate of student absenteeism,” said Hidayani. 

Solutions for a sinking city

With limited access to education, many young women in Kalibaru have turned to the green mussel industry to earn a living. Green mussels are a popular food among Indonesians, but the sector is labour intensive and generates huge amounts of waste that is routinely dumped at sea, further contaminating coastal fisheries.

The Kota Kita Foundation is training women working in the green mussels industry to craft alternative products from mussel waste, to reduce incidences of waste dumping and give them a new source of income.

To mitigate tidal floods and coastal abrasion, fishing communities in Pantai Sederhana have taken to planting mangroves around their villages, although some worry that the mangroves will not grow fast enough to mitigate the effects of rising seas.

The government, meanwhile, is reportedly reviving a plan under new president Prabowo Subianto to build a 46 kilometer-long sea wall and a series of artificial islands in Jakarta Bay to protect the northern parts of the city from tidal flooding. However, only 13 kilometres of the construction, which is estimated to cost up to US$60 billion, has been built amid criticism that it is damaging the marine ecosystem and hurting fisheries.

Experts also argue that the megaproject does little to address the main factor causing Jakarta to sink: land subsidence. “We are too focused on mitigating downstream disasters, when the real issue originates upstream,” commented Muhari. 

As Jakarta’s vulnerable northern region becomes decreasingly liveable, NGOs worry about where displaced peoples will move to, and how they will sustain themselves when they relocate. Providing fisherfolks with training to acquire new skills will be key to enabling them to resettle, NGOs say.

The cultural identity of coastal communities is another important factor as people are forced to relocate. Nurhidayah, a climate and coastal management researcher, said that the government should recognise that these communities have strong bonds and tend to co-habit, so if they are relocated they should be moved together – or they may return to their old neighbourhoods. 

The government should take steps to reduce the financial burden on communities struggling to adapt as the city sinks, said Nurhidayah. 

“It is the government’s responsibility to provide a standard of living that ensures the health and well-being of its citizens, including access to a healthy environment and adequate housing. The government’s failure to meet these obligations constitutes a violation of basic human rights,” She said.

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