Countless human-made troubles in the Indonesian capital pose an imminent threat to the city’s survival, a threat intensified by climate change.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Rasdiono remembers when the sea was a good distance from his doorstep, down a hill. Back then, he opened the cramped, gaily painted bayside shack he named the Blessed Bodega, where he and his family sell catfish heads, spiced eggs and fried chicken.
It was strange, said Rasdiono, who like many Indonesians uses one name. Year by year, the water crept closer. The hill gradually disappeared. Now the sea loomed high over the shop, just steps away, held back only by a leaky wall.
With climate change, the Java Sea is rising and weather in Jakarta is becoming more extreme. This month another freakish storm briefly turned Jakarta’s streets into rivers and brought the vast area of nearly 30 million residents to a virtual halt.
One local climate researcher, Irvan Pulungan, an adviser to the city’s governor, fears that temperatures may rise several degrees Fahrenheit, and the sea level up to 3 feet in the region, in the coming century.
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That, alone, spells potential disaster for the teeming metropolis.
Global warming is not the only culprit behind the historic floods that overran Rasdiono’s bodega and much of the rest of Jakarta in 2007. The problem, it turned out, was that the city itself is sinking.
In fact, Jakarta is sinking faster than any other big city on the planet, faster, even, than climate change is causing the sea to rise — so surreally fast that rivers sometimes flow upstream, ordinary rains regularly swamp neighborhoods and buildings slowly disappear underground, swallowed by the earth. The main cause: Jakartans are digging illegal wells, drip by drip draining the underground aquifers on which the city rests — like deflating a giant cushion underneath it. About 40 percent of Jakarta now lies below sea level. Coastal districts, like Muara Baru, near the Blessed Bodega, have sunk as much as 14 feet in recent years.
Climate change acts here as it does elsewhere, exacerbating scores of other ills. In Jakarta’s case, a tsunami of human-made troubles — runaway development, a near-total lack of planning, next to no sewers and a limited network of reliable, piped-in drinking water — poses an imminent threat to the city’s survival.
Sinking buildings, sprawl, polluted air and some of the worst traffic jams in the world are symptoms of other deeply rooted troubles. Distrust of government is a national condition. Conflicts among Islamic extremists and secular Indonesians, Muslims and ethnic Chinese have blocked progress and complicated everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, to stop the city from sinking.
“Nobody here believes in the greater good, because there is so much corruption, so much posturing about serving the public when what gets done only serves private interests,” as Sidney Jones, the director of the local Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, put it. “There is no trust.”
Hydrologists say the city has only a decade to halt its sinking. If it can’t, northern Jakarta, with its millions of residents, will end up underwater, along with much of the nation’s economy. Eventually, barring wholesale change and an infrastructural revolution, Jakarta won’t be able to build walls high enough to hold back the rivers, canals and the rising Java Sea.
Even then, if it does manage to heal its self-inflicted wounds, it still has to cope with all the mounting threats from climate change.
Spread along the northwestern coast of Java, Jakarta, capital of the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population, used to be a soggy, bug-infested trading port for the Hindu kingdom of Sunda before local sultans took it over in 1527. They named it Jayakarta, Javanese for victorious city.
Dutch colonists arrived a century later, establishing a base for the East India territories. Imagining a tropical Amsterdam, they laid out streets and canals to try to cope with water pouring in from the south, out of the forests and mountains, where rain falls nearly 300 days of the year. Thirteen rivers feed into the city.
After independence in 1945, the city began to sprawl. Today, it is virtually impossible to walk around. Parks are rarer than Javan rhinos. A trip to the nearest botanical garden requires the better part of a day in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
One afternoon I met a man named Topaz in the ruins of an evicted waterfront village, Akuarium. Topaz described himself as a third-generation resident of what used to be a thriving neighborhood.
That was before the bulldozers arrived. Akuarium had been reduced to mounds of broken masonry and concrete.
“The government said the eviction was about cleaning the river, but I believe it was about politics and development,” Topaz said, reflecting a belief widely held among residents.
He showed me around the tattered, windswept tent he shares with a dozen other squatters not far from where his family home used to be. Over his shoulder, several luxury waterfront apartment towers were under construction. “I saw promotions for those towers that showed Akuarium turned into a park,” Topaz said.
Jakarta’s former governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, ordered the eviction. He is ethnic Chinese, a geological engineer by training. As governor, he tackled several of Jakarta’s big problems, or tried to. He assembled a sanitation crew, called the Orange Army, to remove sediment and garbage from rivers and canals.
And he cleared out some of the villages that obstructed waterways. The efforts began to make a difference. Rains that once caused days of floods drained within hours.
But many people forced out, like Topaz, resisted the moves, convinced the evictions were really intended to enrich developers, not improve drainage. Akuarium became a hotbed of protest against the governor.
Capitalizing on residents’ resistance and the piety of the urban poor, the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front teamed with some of the governor’s political rivals and religious conservatives to tap into a vein of anti-Chinese populism. Ahok’s enemies escalated what had been a conflict over the displacement of a fishing community into an argument about whether a non-Muslim should lead a Muslim-majority city.
The governor lost his re-election bid, and the Islamists, who exploited anger against him, had him brought up on charges of blasphemy. He is serving two years in prison.
The new governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, who ran a campaign that drew support from Akuarium’s angry residents, announced in November as one of his first acts that he planned to rebuild some of the shelters in the village.
The Coastal Wall
JanJaap Brinkman, a hydrologist who for decades has been studying Jakarta for the Dutch water-research institute Deltares, sympathizes with residents of communities like Akuarium. Eviction isn’t a cure-all, or even possible, he said, considering how many countless thousands of Jakartans live atop the canals and rivers in informal developments. At the same time, Brinkman stressed, moving people is necessary, and bungled evictions squander a meager reservoir of goodwill and precious time.
“We need big steps now,” he said. “If all the discussions get tied up with fishermen and development, there will eventually be a massive calamity and deaths and no choice but to give up on whole parts of Jakarta.”
There is occasional talk about the Indonesian government moving its capital elsewhere, to shrink the city. Politicians issue decrees prohibiting developers from digging wells and imploring residents to store rainwater. Enforcement is negligible.
The most ambitious move by the city is the construction of what’s called the Coastal Wall, now rising like a black cliff from Jakarta Bay. It’s a quasi-temporary barrier to hold back the rising sea and compensate for subsidence — built extra high because, like the rest of North Jakarta, it is expected to sink, too. With subsidence at the current rate, the Coastal Wall itself may be underwater by 2030.
Even more alarming, Brinkman pointed out a spot along the waterfront where the wall ends and all that holds back the sea is a low, crumbling concrete rampart. The water was only a couple of feet below the top when we peered over the embankment.
“If this wall breaks, there’s simply no holding back the Java Sea,” said Brinkman, gesturing from the rampart toward the city. “Jakarta will flood all the way to the center of town … I could take you to 20 other places just like this.”
The Coastal Wall belongs to a larger project that Indonesian officials undertook three years ago in collaboration with the Dutch government. Called the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development program, it imagines supplementing the Coastal Wall with a second barrier, a Giant Sea Wall, or massive dike, miles out to sea, in effect closing off Jakarta Bay entirely.
The dike would not just block rising waters. According to the original plan, it would also become the spine for an immense new megadistrict and ring road, a $40 billion development — and a windfall for real-estate moguls and Dutch consultants — designed in the shape of a garuda, the national bird.
The Great Garuda, as it came to be called, was Jakarta’s Big Idea.
Or it was until just lately.
The government has now backtracked on the megadistrict idea, while still envisioning the dike itself — the very notion of which has provoked understandable skepticism. As environmentalists have pointed out, if the city doesn’t first clean up its rivers and canals, a dike will turn an enclosed Jakarta Bay into the world’s largest cesspool.
From Brinkman’s perspective, just “counteracting subsidence will account for 90 percent of what this city needs to do to deal with climate change.”
Tokyo was in a similar predicament after World War II, he likes to point out. It had sunk about 12 feet since 1900. But the city poured resources into new infrastructure and established stricter rules about development, and within a decade or two made itself better able to cope with the effects of climate change.
“Jakarta could become a 21st-century version of Tokyo in the 20th century, an example for urban redevelopment,” Pulungan said.
But “a city that can’t deliver basic services is a failed city,” he added. “On top of conventional issues like flooding and urbanization, we now have climate change, tipping the scale. And at this rate, people will be fighting in the streets for increasingly limited resources like clean water and safe living spaces.”
Like Tokyo half a century ago, Jakarta is at a turning point, he said: “Nature will no longer wait.”