Sinking, Displacement and Lack of Clean Water Access in Jakarta, Indonesia

Sinking, Displacement and Lack of Clean Water Access in Jakarta, Indonesia

by Greta Lapp Klassen; May 28, 2022

REZAS | AFP via Getty Images

What do you do when you don’t have access to clean water? You dig a well.    

The city of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city with a population of almost 11 million people, is sinking at an average rate of 17 centimeters per year, making it the fastest sinking city in the world, although certainly not the only. By 2050, it is estimated that one third of the city will be underwater.

According to Jakarta native and recent Goshen College graduate Adhika Ezra, one of the major  causes of the sinking can be traced back to the colonization of Indonesia, which began in 1512 when Portuguese spice traders arrived, looking for exotic spices such as nutmeg, cloves and cubeb pepper, a traditional Indonesian spice described as a cross between allspice and black pepper.

Less than a century later, in 1602, colonial rule was solidified on the island nation when the Netherlands established the Dutch East India Company, becoming the dominant European power in the region for over 300 years. It wasn’t until after World War II and the Japanese invasion, which weakened the Dutch grip on the conglomerate of islands, that Indonesia finally gained sovereignty in 1949  — less than 75 years ago.

Unfortunately for the newly independent country, establishing wide-spread and effective infrastructure had not been a priority for the Dutch during their 300 year reign.

“The Netherlands built a water system for Jakarta that would benefit them and the small amount of land where they lived,” Ezra said. “For the city at large, they didn’t care. Everyone else needed to figure out a way to get clean water on their own   — and they figured it out, by taking groundwater.”

“After our independence, the water system is still in place for years to come,” Ezra said. “There was never this huge ‘let’s restructure the water system’  — no, they decided to keep it.”

This means that for the majority of people living in Jakarta today, their only source of water is a hand-dug well. But the removal of water from underground aquifers at such a massive scale is causing the land to drop, and rapidly.

Ezra, pictured here in Jakarta.

“When you take groundwater out of the ground, water gets depleted,” Ezra said.  “Usually when it rains, the water stores get replenished [through the soil]   —  but now the city is covered in asphalt, so when the rain comes, nothing gets replenished.”

The extraction of groundwater, combined with the weight of massive buildings being built and rising sea levels, means that Jakarta is sinking twice as fast as other coastal megacities  — and as a city that receives an average of 70 inches of rain each year with  40% of its land below sea level, the city is much more vulnerable to flooding than other sinking cities. 

In February of 2020, thousands of homes in Jakarta, including the presidential palace, were flooded due to flash floods, resulting in 66 reported fatalities and the displacement of over 40,000 people. In some places, the water reached as high as five feet, and the floodwaters submerged the country’s largest hospital, Cipto Mangunkusumo, damaging medical equipment and facilities. 

Considering the imminent arrival of 2050 and the inevitable loss of much of Jakarta, the government has decided to move the capital from Java to the island of Borneo, a much larger island over 600 miles away.

“They’re going to use large amounts of money to create infrastructure and make a city, and then that will be the new capital,” Ezra said. “I am not sure what will happen to the people in Jakarta. There will be a lot of displacement for sure.”

Although the city isn’t underwater yet, the displacement of residents is well on its way. And surprisingly, one major cause is well-meaning government projects attempting to slow the sinking and minimize damage. 

After the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) determined that building a massive seawall 10 kilometers out from shore was too costly, they got to work building smaller dykes, which provide a fragile barrier between the sea and land and have to be built higher year after year. However, the construction of dykes means the removal of the people who live on the sites, and they only received financial compensation if they provided proof of land ownership. 

“Usually when it rains, the water stores get replenished [through the soil]   —  but now the city is covered in asphalt, so when the rain comes, nothing gets replenished.”

“A lot of people in Jakarta, for one reason or another, don’t have that official document of ownership,” Ezra said. “People are being displaced without compensation.”

Even though dykes are generally a good way of preventing floods, Ezra feels as if the government could go about their construction in a less harmful way. 

“A large part of it is that the government is doing all these projects without proper consultation from the residents,” he said. “A lot of it comes at the cost of the community living around the areas.”

The NCICD doesn’t just build dykes – they have many other beneficial initiatives, like building more protective infrastructure, monitoring the rate of land subsidence, and giving clean water supplies to communities, and working on water treatment and sewage management. But Ezra believes more could be done. 

“Is [what they’re doing] enough? Personally, I believe it’s not  — but they’re doing the best they can,” he said. “A lot of people would criticize the government for inaction, but it is more complex than that. It’s hard to mobilize, especially with the bureaucracy process.” 

The situation is dire, and it can be hard to find hope in the face of reality. To try and comprehend the impact of rising sea levels on a global scale can be paralyzing to the extent where people block it out of their mind in order to function. 

“You put it in the back of your head and act as if everything is normal because you don’t have a choice,” Ezra said. “And people might do that community wide, like in Jakarta.”

Ezra believes that thinking about the future of Jakarta is so daunting because there is no clear-cut solution that fixes everything. “How do I imagine things getting better?” he said with a grim chuckle, “It’s a simple question, but somehow, I feel overwhelmed.” 

But perhaps the question we should be answering is not how to stop the flooding but rather how to prepare for it. Maybe Jakarta’s solution cannot be found in a well of neverending hope; the first step towards finding a solution may be in acknowledging that catastrophic damage and loss are inevitable. 

In an article called “What if We Stopped Pretending?” by Jonathan Franzen, published in The New Yorker in 2019, he suggests that there is value in putting our efforts towards recovery from climate disaster instead of just prevention. 

He writes, “all-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example.”

For Jakarta, the best course of action to combat climate change might require a small concession — acknowledging that damage will be done and there is no way to save everything. Focusing on sustainable and equitable ways to relocate millions of people by 2050 now is better than taking a more reactionary approach after the flooding has happened. Franzen argues that “To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.”

Making systems strong and healthy before they get sick seems slightly more manageable than trying to revive them from the dead. And Ezra is confident that his generation is prepared to do the necessary work.

“I see so many people, like me, who want to fix the damage,” he said. “I’m hopeful that our generation will have different values, and once we get into the positions of power, we can use that to make positive changes in our society.”

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