Jakarta, The Sinking City



Indonesia rescue team evacuate residents from their flooded house. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

In the early days of the New Year, while many worldwide were celebrating the new decade and preparing to go back to work or school, thousands of people in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, were struggling with deadly flash floods. More than 60 people were killed and more than 175,000 citizens were displaced (Reuters, 2020), not only in Jakarta but also in the nearby provinces of West Java and Banten (Time, 2020). Thousands of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed including 16 mosques, important centres of worship for the Muslim-majority country. Although this was not widely reported in the media, it is not the first time this has happened; in 2013, at least 29 people died in similar flash floods.

Jakarta is extremely vulnerable to these floods, being a coastal city, and is the fastest-sinking city in the world (BBC, 2018). Venice, the famous city of canals in Italy, is in the news often with its rapid sinking and frequent floods. Jakarta is more often subjected to these floods, and unlike those in Venice, its floods are mortally dangerous in the way that they exacerbate already severe wealth inequality in the country. This greatly impacts the country, with Indonesia having the sixth highest wealth inequality in the world according to the charity Oxfam. This comparison is not made to invalidate Venice’s struggles, but to pose the question: why hasn’t popular media covered Jakarta’s descent into the ocean, and why is no change being made to try and stop it? There are areas of Jakarta that sink by 6 to 10 inches a year (World Bank, 2016), endangering thousands of people, their homes and their livelihoods. This is caused by excessive extraction of groundwater from the city – because piped water is not reliable, groundwater has to be extracted. However, this extraction process causes the land above to sink, leading to land subsidence. Furthermore, regulations on extraction are lax, allowing anyone to carry out their own extraction operation, as long as it is regulated (BBC, 2018). The issue is so urgent that the Indonesian government has announced they will move the capital to the island of Borneo to try and reduce overpopulation. This move, however, has been criticised by climate activists and scientists who say it is simply a cover-up for inaction, and that real change needs to be made if North Jakarta is not to be 95% underwater by 2050, as is estimated.

The floods have disproportionately affected and continue to affect the poor of Jakarta, living on the outskirts of the city and in less developed neighbourhoods that do not have the infrastructure to face the frequent floods. Richer neighbourhoods and those living in high-rise buildings are able to escape the floods by simply going up. The below image, tweeted by Twitter user @hhaanniiyy on New Year’s Day, displays the shocking disparity between the rich and poor of Jakarta – on the left, the basically untouched pool of the Shangri-La Hotel, and on the right, a kampong (village) submerged in dirty floodwater. This image not only displays the inequality within Jakarta, but also how climate change is already disproportionately affecting poorer communities, and how the climate crisis will only make increasing development gaps, both within a country and between countries, worse.


Jakarta is not the only city to be struggling with extreme events caused by human activity. Coastal cities are the first to be affected by extreme climate events, with cities around the world seeing increased incidents of floods, as well as being much worse affected by hurricanes and typhoons, which hit coasts first. It is estimated that the increase in sea level due to Arctic ice melting will mostly affect Asian cities, with 4 in 5 of people affected living in the continent. Sea-level rise would sink an estimated 570 cities around the world (The Guardian, 2017), displacing millions and creating a climate refugee crisis, something that is already occurring in Afghanistan with severe drought and in Samoa with Tropical Cyclone Gita (UNHCR, n.d.). The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) states that in 2018 there were 18.8 million disaster-related internal displacements (displacements within a country), most of these related with natural hazards (UNHCR, n.d.).

Climate change is not an abstract problem to deal with in the future, when it comes around – it is happening now, and with it comes a host of other, perhaps even bigger problems than itself. The most dangerous thing about climate change is not the climate change itself – it is the problems it causes, such as loss of biodiversity, extinction of species which causes disruption of food chains, the sinking of coastal cities, the increase in displacement from these cities and others affected by extreme weather events, increased food insecurity and many more. If policies to protect Jakarta and other cities like it are not put into place, the problem will not resolve itself – these cities will sink, and the problems that come with that tomorrow will be far worse than the

cost of fixing it today. This is why it is so important to actively take part in discussions surrounding climate change – it is the only way we can get our representatives and those in government positions to take notice of a public sentiment, and by doing this, we can cause real change in our world.

If you would like to know more about contacting your local representative to discuss this issue with them or others, you can find out more here:



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