The Sinking City

Luar Batang is one of the oldest communities in Jakarta. It dates back to the seventeenth century when a settlement grew around a post levying tolls on fishing boats sailing up the Ciliwung River and into the city’s canal system. The Ciliwung, the largest of the thirteen rivers that flow through Jakarta, doesn’t make it down to Luar Batang anymore. The river starts its journey on the slopes of a volcano south of the Indonesian capital and flows through the heart of one of the world’s most densely populated cities. But it no longer spills into Jakarta Bay because, for the final mile or so of its course, the river would have to defy gravity and flow upward to discharge its waters into the sea.

Jakarta is sinking. This city of almost thirty million people squats on a swampy plain that has sunk four metres over the past three decades. It has essentially turned into a bowl that deepens discernibly with each passing year and poses a threat to the city’s future existence.

Today the residents of Luar Batang live well below sea level. Yasmin, a resident in her mid-twenties, led me up a three-metre ladder to the top of the village wall, against which the muddy brown waters of the Java Sea gently lap on a pleasant day. Next to the fishing village is the 800- year-old Sunda Kelapa harbour, where a rank of sharp-prowed wooden pinisi sailing ships stands majestically at anchor, still the mainstay of inter-island trade in the Indonesian archipelago.

This spot is ground sub-zero for the sinking city. It’s not only Luar Batang that is sinking, but also the channels of the Ciliwung and other rivers, along with the entire sprawl of Jakarta’s north coast – fishing ports, boatyards, markets, warehouses, fish farms, crowded slums and exclusive gated communities. And the forty-year-old seawall that is supposed to keep the Java Sea from inundating the Indonesian capital? That’s sinking, too.

Unlike many of the neighbouring slums slowly subsiding along the coast, Luar Batang is a clean and relatively prosperous place, thanks to its famous mosque, established in the eighteenth century by an Arab trader, and its historical status as one of the city’s first settlements. Its future, though, is highly uncertain. Like many people who live in proximity to constant danger, Yasmin, who helps run a family food stall, shrugs off the possibility of catastrophic floods: ‘I’m not scared, because I’m used to it. The only time I worry is during the rainy season, because the drainage system doesn’t work,’ she says, looking sceptically at one of the water pumps stashed in every alleyway of the kampong, testament to the everworsening floods. She expects one day she and her neighbours in Luar Batang will have to move.

Jakarta is in danger of drowning from floods and rising seas, paradoxically because water is disappearing from the ground underneath. Extraction of groundwater causes layers of rock and sediment to pancake slowly on top of each other. Most Jakarta residents and businesses suck water up through wells drilled into shallow underground aquifers, according to city data. Fook Chuan Eng, senior water and sanitation specialist with the World Bank, who oversees a US$189 million floodmitigation project for the city, compares Jakarta’s basin to a chunk of Swiss cheese. ‘Groundwater extraction is unparalleled for a city of this size,’ he said. ‘People are digging deeper and deeper, and the ground is collapsing.’

There’s that, and the sheer weight of Jakarta’s urban sprawl crushing the porous ground underneath, Fook tells me, waving from his twelfthstorey office at the thickening forest of glass and steel high-rise towers outside that has replaced Jakarta’s traditional cityscape of red-tile-roofed bungalows and double storey shop houses. Jakarta as a whole is sinking at a rate of three inches a year, far outpacing the one-third of an inch annual rise in mean sea level in the area. The northern coast, however, is sinking at double the rate of the rest of the city – by an average of six inches a year and, in some places, as much as ten to eleven, according to a ten-year study by a team of geodynamics experts from the Institute of Technology Bandung. Today, forty per cent of Jakarta is below sea level.

Other Asia megacities are also dealing with severe subsidence: Manila is sinking at a rate of approximately three and a half inches a year. Ho Chi Minh City is subsiding three inches a year and Bangkok by approximately an inch. This has been happening even as populations around the world have tended to concentrate along low-lying coastal land. In 2010, an estimated 724 million people around the world lived in what researchers consider low-elevation coastal zones – coastal areas ten metres or less above sea level.

For this sizable mass of humanity courting danger at the waters’ edge means worsening impacts from storms and floods. The frequency of these events is rising as well. Recorded floods and severe storms in Southeast Asia have increased sixfold, from fewer than twenty between 1960 and 1969 to nearly 120 between 2000 and 2008, according to an Asian Development Bank study.

Little can be done to halt the slow increase in sea levels. Nor has Jakarta had much success in stemming the arrival of migrants from the provinces who squat illegally along the coast. It is possible, though, to stop subsidence. Jakarta has regulations limiting the amount of water that can be extracted daily from licensed wells. A public-awareness campaign on television urges viewers to ‘save groundwater for the sake of our nation’. But enforcement is weak, and illegal wells are rife in the city. The city has a moratorium on new mall construction, mainly to ease notorious traffic congestion, but has otherwise done little over the years to temper the building spree that weighs heavily on the ground below.

A February 2007 storm was a tipping point, stirring the government to act with more urgency. A strong monsoon storm coinciding with a high tide overwhelmed ramshackle coastal defences, pushing a wall of dark and filthy water from Jakarta Bay into the capital. It was the first time a storm surge from the sea had flooded the city. Nearly half of Jakarta was covered by as much as four metres of muddy water. At least seventysix people were killed, and 590,000 were left homeless. The cost of damages reached US$544 million. As Jakarta cleaned up, then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono formed a task force to come up with a strategy to deal with more frequent flooding. One option discussed was to move the overcrowded capital to higher elevations southeast of the city or to another island altogether. Another thought was simply to abandon the old city district of north Jakarta.

Both ideas were dismissed. Jakarta is the economic hub of Indonesia, contributing twenty per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Allowing the sea to claim forty per cent of the capital city, home to nearly half of Jakarta’s population, was unthinkable, said Robert Sianipar, a top official from the Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs, which convened the task force. ‘If we abandon north Jakarta, that would cost US$220 billion in assets – not to count the number of people and productivity that would have to be replaced.’ The task force decided to focus on bolstering coastal defences and refurbishing the crumbling flood canal system. It was the former colonial power, the Netherlands, that offered technical assistance. Perhaps no other country in the world has learned how to live so effectively below sea level; the Dutch also built the canal system for the old colonial city of Batavia, before the city was renamed Jakarta after independence.

As a first step, the height of the existing twenty-mile seawall was raised in 2008. But as the existing wall slips under the waves, it’s obvious that this measure offers little protection against another big storm surge, or even a moderately high spring tide. At high tide in some places, the old seawall can barely be seen poking above the water’s surface, both because the sea is rising and because the wall itself is sinking into soft alluvial sediments. The World Bank warned in a 2012 report that catastrophic floods would soon become routine in Jakarta, ‘resulting in severe socioeconomic damage’.

The task force was still trying to decide on an overall strategy when the World Bank’s prediction came true in January 2013: parts of the city were submerged under two metres of water after a heavy monsoon storm. Days later, President Yudhoyono ordered the task force to take a bolder approach.

A year later, the task force came up with the ‘National Capital Integrated Coastal Development Master Plan’, which was soon dubbed the  ‘Giant Sea Wall’ or the ‘Great Garuda’, for its resemblance from the air to the bird-god of Hindu mythology that is Indonesia’s national symbol.

The Great Sea Wall was launched in October 2014 – two weeks before incoming president and popular former Jakarta governor Joko Widodo was sworn in. The centrepiece of the plan will be an outer seawall built on reclaimed land several miles out in Jakarta Bay. A new ‘Waterfront City’, with office towers, hotels and luxury housing, will be built atop Garuda complex, covering up to 10,000 acres – that’s nearly half the size of Manhattan. Selling real estate on the wall is expected to be the main financing vehicle for the wall itself, which would be completed by 2022. Meeting that deadline ‘will be one of the most challenging hydraulic civil works that has been carried out worldwide’, the Master Plan says. The first phase of the project is a $2 billion, twenty-mile inner seawall now being built in front of the village of Muara Baru. The inner seawall is aimed at buying time, holding off another inundation until the Great Garuda is built, providing long-term protection.

The Great Garuda won’t, however, restore the natural flow of some of the sinking city’s thirteen rivers and various canals into Jakarta Bay. Some of these channels drain into floodwater retention lakes, magnets for new migrants from outlying provinces who squat illegally around their perimeters. Huge pumping stations then lift the highly polluted water from these lakes the last few hundred yards into Jakarta Bay.

More and bigger such lakes will soon be needed to pump out water from the other rivers and canals that will no longer be able to discharge into the Bay in the coming years. ‘You’re talking about pumping lakes up to a hundred square kilometres,’ said Victor Coenen, a geologist by training, who was part of the Dutch water management team. ‘Where do you find room for that in a densely populated city?’

The Great Garuda would solve that problem by creating a single gigantic storage lake in Jakarta Bay, enclosed by the inner and outer seawalls and fed by giant pumping stations onshore. Planners even envision that this reservoir will one day become a sustainable source of drinking water for the city. That seems like a stunning ambition. Jakarta would first have to build massive wastewater treatment and water purification plants. Until that happens, the new pumping stations would spew an un- ending stream of toxic swill and rubbish from some of the world’s most polluted rivers and canals into the reservoir of the Great Garuda.

This scenario fuels criticism of the project. Sceptics are afraid that it would turn into a giant septic tank behind the Giant Sea Wall. Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, who took over from Widodo, has become one of the biggest critics. ‘I honestly have doubts about (the Giant Sea Wall),’ he told an audience of hydrologists last October. ‘Flushing the mud will be very problematic.’

It’s hardly a new problem for Indonesia’s capital. Colonial Batavia was styled ‘the Queen of the East’ for its distinctive colonial architecture and tree-lined canals. Even then, closer inspection of the coast revealed ‘a dismal succession of stinking mud-banks, filthy bogs and stagnant pools [that] announces to more senses than one the poisonous nature of this dreadful climate,’ British writer John Joseph Stockdale observed in his 1811 book, Island of Java.

Then as now, ‘stagnant canals’ functioned as open sewers and exhaled ‘an intolerable stench’. In the wet season, ‘those reservoirs of corrupted water overflow their banks in the lower part of town, and fill the lower storeys of the houses where they leave behind an inconceivable quantity of slime and earth’.

Today, the city has just one small wastewater treatment plant that serves the central business district. Almost everyone uses septic tanks or dumps waste into neighbourhood sewers that flow into the canal system. The slime has accumulated over the centuries in the canals, and their embankments have risen in a failing effort to contain the floodwaters. The canals that flow to the sea or into the coastal retention ponds have lost up to seventy-five per cent of their capacity.

The city is near the end of a three-year project to deepen the canals and increase the height of their walls. But the homes along their banks often lie below the level of the canals now, leaving no escape in the event of a flood.

A city with an extensive canal system and a tropical monsoon climate should not suffer a water shortage. Yet only about a quarter of Jakarta’s population is connected to the city’s piped water system. Half the population draws water from wells, and the other quarter buy fresh water from vendors. Some city residents who could have access to piped water prefer to use groundwater because connection fees – amounting to a month’s minimum wage – and additional charges on the bill make it much more expensive than sinking a backyard well.

Piped water is also unpopular because it is often filthy when it comes out of the tap. There’s a good reason for that: half of Jakarta’s water supply comes from the basin of the Citarum River, the largest in West Java, which the Asia Development Bank has dubbed ‘the world’s dirtiest river’. The Citarum is so clogged with industrial and agricultural effluents and waste from the teeming settlements along its banks that in places during the dry season it almost seems like you could walk the river. Well-water is hardly better. Seventy per cent of the wells in the city are contaminated by E. coli bacteria from leaking septic tanks, according to a study conducted by the city government. The water crisis has been a boon to the increasing ranks of water vendors who drag long carts filled with five-gallon jerry cans of water around the kampongs. One jerry can costs about four US cents.

Jakarta has recently tried another tack in its struggle with water: evicting settlers to create green areas along the coast. Tens of thousands of squatters occupy large swathes of the Muara Baru village, behind the seawall and around a nearby retention pond – a catchment for flood waters and also the end point for some of the rivers and channels that are backing up in the soggy, sinking bowl that Jakarta has become. They scavenge debris from the channels, collect green mussels or shrimp from the dirty water, or pick up work in the boatyards.

Yet Muara Baru, home to more than 100,000 people, is now at least six feet below sea level, and residents like Rahmawati, a mother of two small children, gaze upward from their front stoops to view the sea. ‘When there’s a high tide, the ships float almost at the same height as the seawall – we can see the ships from here,’ said Rahmawati who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name. Flooding from overflowing rivers and canals in the area is an annual event that forces Rahmawati and the rest of the kampong to evacuate to public buildings nearby. High-water marks from the last big flood, in 2013, are still visible on the walls of the kampong.

Every year the floods come, people evacuate to public buildings and the village sinks some more. Even so, says Sukiman, a father of three, ‘It’s not that bad: we can live here.’

Reuters published a different version of this story in December 2014. 

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