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The Lost City of Jakarta

With news of floods engulfing the Italian monument of Venice, the effects of climate change are becoming more apparent in Western climes. Yet, the stark realities of rising sea waters have long been an issue for island nations, none more so than the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

Home to 30 million people, Jakarta is a bustling metropolis of modern industry, yet, travel away from its thriving city centre toward the coast and the scenery tells of an uncertain future. Jakarta is a city running out of time.

Perched on the edge of one of Indonesia’s many coastal areas, Jakarta is surrounded by water; water, which is rising. The landmass of Jakarta itself is also sinking, up to 4 metres over the past two decades. Together, this could mean disaster for the tens of millions of people who call the region home.

Jakarta: The Sinking City

Jakarta’s population has been growing after an oil boom in the 1970s, so rapidly, in fact, that the infrastructure for clean water has struggled to keep up with demand.

Piped water is only available to 60 percent of the population, and most of that is to the relatively wealthy areas in the centre and south of the city. As a result, residents and businesses, including some government offices, have resorted to sinking boreholes into the natural reservoirs which Jakarta sits above, as an affordable source of clean water.

The huge rise in population over the last few decades has resulted in large scale urbanisation. Soft earth which was once able to reabsorb water to replenish the reservoirs is now largely coated with concrete and can no longer do so. This has caused the city’s foundations to lower, causing widespread subsidence.

Climate Change and Sea Levels

Climate change is only going to compound this problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is predicting that if carbon emissions remain the same, we can expect sea levels to have risen by one metre by the year 2100.

No stranger to the effects of natural disasters, Jakarta is annually hit by storm surges and cyclones. In 2007, devastation hit the city when both rainfall and seawater, up to four metres high, wiped out whole neighbourhoods. 300,000 people were evacuated and 80 were killed. Six years later, several days of heavy rainfall caused canals, built by successive governments to help direct water back out to sea, to collapse and this time the flooding spread into the central business district. Around 45 people lost their lives and thousands were evacuated. With global warming on the increase, events like these are only likely to be more frequent and intense.

What Does the Future Hold for Jakarta?

Tragedies like those in 2007 forced the government to take coastal defence measures more seriously. They moved to launch the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development, or NCICD, and looked to international experts to provide assistance.

Two main possibilities await Jakarta, both will involve huge costs and manpower. One suggestion is to surrender the northern districts of Jakarta to the ocean. This would involve the seemingly impossible task of moving millions of citizens to other areas of the overpopulated city, for which reason this option has been largely disregarded.

Alternatively, it seems the most recent idea of a 40km wide dyke to protect the bay of Jakarta, maybe the last resort to protect the city and its tens of millions of inhabitants from the rising ocean. However, the success of any plan not only hinges on the swift and decisive execution by the Indonesian government but equally as important, the prevention of more subsidence inland.

To prevent the continued sinking of Jakarta, measures must be put in place to stop the overuse of the underground reservoirs, the pressure of which essentially holds up the earth that the sprawling city is built on. Jakarta’s deputy governor, Oswar Mungkasa, estimates that the pumping of groundwater needs to completely stop within five years.

“Jakarta is a sad story, and it’s very difficult to see how it could be resolved because of the timescale and the number of people, It’s a gigantic task. But you can’t just close your eyes.”

The truth is, successive governments have known about the problem that Jakarta is facing for decades. Sufficient action has not been taken and this has resulted in the vastly populated city finding itself on the brink of disappearing into the ocean forever.

In September of this year President Joko Widodo, a former governor of the city, announced that East Kalimantan will replace Jakarta as the new capital of Indonesia. This has acted as a huge wake-up call, not only to Jakarta but to the rest of the world. We’re running out of time and we need to change our priorities.

After all, there is only so much high ground.

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