Indonesia’s capital falls below sea level

by Rohan Sinha (’23) | February 14, 2022

Art by Mia Patil (’22)

The capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, is swiftly being submerged by surrounding waters. While the megacity has been sinking at an average rate of half an inch per year, some areas are descending by more than eight inches in the same amount of time. Nearly half of the city is below sea level, and at the current rate, almost the entire city could be underwater by 2050.

Jakarta’s sinking is not entirely the product of climate change; this grave crisis is partly due to the city’s history of colonialism. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch racially segregated Jakarta and created a plumbing system that neglected to serve indigenous Jakartans. Today, nearly half of Jakartans still obtain water through wells and pumps, which depletes groundwater, causing the city’s land surface to sink and allowing the sea level to rise rapidly. Urbanization, along with the construction of apartment buildings and shopping malls, has only increased the consumption of groundwater, further exacerbating the situation.

The Indonesian government has proposed several solutions to mitigate a potential disaster, including building a massive sea wall in the Jakarta Bay. Named Project Garuda in honor of Indonesia’s mythical bird, the Great Sea Wall would span the entirety of Jakarta Bay, converting it into a reservoir. 

However, a sea wall may actually worsen the groundwater shortage. If it is damaged, residential buildings near the sea wall may become submerged. In fact, parts of a seawall in Jakarta collapsing in late 2019 validated fears about such flood threats. 

Furthermore, constructing a sea wall is an incredibly costly undertaking, and it fails to address the root cause of Jakarta’s sinking: the overconsumption of groundwater. Many experts believe that a sea wall may delay, but will not ultimately prevent, Jakarta’s sinking.

The Indonesian government has also passed legislation to relocate Indonesia’s capital from the island of Java, where Jakarta is located, to the island of Borneo. The new capital, named Nusantara, would be built on a jungled area of the island. 

With an ambitious vision for this city, the government is committed to building it in an eco-friendly manner. However, experts are skeptical of this idealistic vision for Nusantara, because building the city would require deforestation that is likely to expand to other areas of Borneo—leading to irreversible environmental damage. 

Moreover, many critics argue that relocation to Nusantara is simply impractical. The island of Java houses most of the country’s population and economic activity. Because businesses and citizens may not follow the movement of government offices, relocation might not alleviate Jakarta’s burden. Kian Goh, an urban planning scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained, “Jakarta will still be the economic center of Indonesia…and still have to take on its social issues and environmental issues.” 

Until the fundamental issue concerning groundwater is addressed, Jakarta will continue to sink, and residents’ lives will continue to be jeopardized.

Categories: Science

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