Why Is Jakarta Sinking?

Flooding in the city of Jakarta has taken 66 lives, with two people still missing as of the 6th of January. The city has been hit by some of the hardest rainfall in years, resulting in flash flooding and landslides. Home to over 30 million people, the floods have caused 170,000 residents to seek refuge. Jakarta is the world’s fastest sinking city, sinking up to 25 cm per year in some areas. The city now sits below sea level and is expected to be completely submerged by 2050. As reported by Reuters, the country’s meteorology, climatology and geophysical agency measured the highest flood reading since 1996. With 13 rivers running through the city and unable to drain into the bay, flooding during the rainy season is frequent and damaging. Many residents in the worst-hit areas have had to abandon homes and businesses as conditions worsen. The floods have also put affected residents at risk of water-Bourne disease, including typhoid and hepatitis. ABC reports, that estimates have only given the city five years before over a quarter is lost to the sea.

But why is Jakarta sinking? There are a number of reasons contributing to the sinking city, the first being groundwater pumping. Over 60% of the city’s population relies on groundwater, providing nearly two-thirds of Jakarta’s water consumption. This is the equivalent of over 600 million cubic meters of water being pumped from the ground annually. Residents of the city are taking water, and as a result, the ground beneath is giving way.

Climate change is also having a significant impact on the rate at which the city is sinking. Rising sea levels, along with subsidence, put Jakarta at risk of flooding. To combat the rising sea levels, walls have been installed along parts of the city to hold back the water. However, sea walls are already beginning to leak and decay. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that if carbon emissions continue at their current rate, sea levels could rise one metre by 2100.

Lack of infrastructure can also be to blame and explain why over 60% of the population have to obtain their water illegally. As reported by The Conversation, the piped network of Indonesia demonstrates the inequality of the country. Piped networks reach only 60% of the population, concentrated in wealthier areas of the city. Poor waste services have resulted in residents dumping into rivers that are now unable to supply freshwater, and have encouraged residents to pump their water directly from the ground.

Finally, Jakarta’s population density is among the highest in the world and the city is collapsing under the pressure. There is more than five times the number of people residing in Jakarta, to that of Melbourne and Sydney. The sheer abundance of concrete and asphalt has left a severe lack of green spaces. This is preventing the absorption of water back into the ground and contributes to the erosion of the city’s soil.

History shows the damaging effects associated with the sinking city are not going away. In 2007, floods engulfed the city, inundated with rainfall and seawater swells. Over 300,000 people were evacuated, and 80 lost their lives. Again in 2013, flood management infrastructure could not handle heavy rainfall, with flooding engulfing not only the poorer, low-lying districts but spread into the CBD. Thousands were again evacuated and 45 people died.

Previous attempts at addressing the issue include the construction of sea walls across Jakarta. The National Capital Integrated Coastal Development’s seawall is being built to protect Jakarta from rising seawater. However, in early December 2019, a nearly 200-metre section of the wall collapsed. The government has since launched an investigation into why the wall collapsed. Reported by Reuters, residents near the collapsed wall now fear for their safety. The plan to build the mega seawall was announced in 2014 and predicted to cost $40 billion.

As reported by The Diplomat, Jakarta’s flooding has ignited conversation about inequality within the country. The floods have disproportionately affected the poorer residents of Jakarta, that predominantly reside in the less developed, outskirts districts. These areas, as reported by Oxfam, suffer from a lack of access to roads and electricity. Indonesia has the sixth-largest wealth inequality globally, and as a result, the poor are more vulnerable to flooding. A popular twitter photo posted by Sakinah Ummy Haniy, bluntly depicts the country’s inequality during the floods. The aerial shot captures the swimming pool of Shangri-la Hotel virtually untouched, next to a village that has been completely engulfed by floodwater. Sutanudjaja, director of the Jakarta-based Urban Studies Centre, states that the hotel, among other development projects, sits three feet higher than street level. This causes floodwater to flow down into areas that don’t have the infrastructure to drain the water away.  Sutanudjaja states “The rich are able to save themselves at the expense of other neighbourhoods,” she says. “In a climate crisis, they [the poor] are the first victims, and the last ones to get help.”

Residents of Jakarta are continually paying the price for their Government’s mismanaged response to the sinking city. Previous attempts at addressing the crisis have failed, and now more than ever, a solution is needed.

Providing an alternative freshwater supply may save Jakarta. If the 60% of residents that pump over 600 million cubic meters annually were given a cost-effective alternative, the subsidence may stop. For this to occur, the government would need to invest millions into infrastructure. Currently, piped networks reach only 60% of the population and are concentrated in wealthier areas. Jan Jaap Brinkman, a hydrologist for the Dutch water research institute Deltares, states the only long term solution to saving Jakarta is to stop all groundwater extraction. Water could be sourced from man-made reservoirs, rain or river water. An expensive technology does exist to replace groundwater, used by Tokyo when facing severe land subsidence. Groundwater extraction in Tokyo also stopped, and the land subsidence halted as a result. Jakarta is sinking and has been sinking for years. Subsiding land, rising sea levels and poor infrastructure have resulted in the city disappearing at an alarming rate. If nothing is done to address the crisis, Jakarta may be underwater by 2050.

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