The street lies below turbid, brown water; it carries the trash that usually adorns the sidewalks and leaks under the doorways of the 9.6 million residents that occupy Jakarta. The makeshift tables and stalls of the street market littered the landscape. They watched as the water carried away things they once held dear, they watched as their homes, their work of many years, wash away as if it were nothing.
On December 31st, heavy rains poured over the city, triggering floods and mudslides. The ordeal displaced 175 people and the death toll had risen to 66. Jakarta is known to regularly experience floods during the rainy season, but this flood is easily the worst for a decade. Government data on the 6th of January showed some 35,000 people still unable to return home after houses were submerged in filthy waters up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) high.
I have lived in Jakarta for 12 years. Majority of my life was spent playing and travelling on streets that were shown on the news, they have never looked so different. I spent countless Saturdays eating street food with my grandparents and watched as the hours go by as I lazed in warungs (a small, open convenience store) outside my home. The scenes they showed of the floods broke my heart, my hometown no longer looked as magical as it was to my younger self. The food stalls and wooden structures of the warung no longer exist. As I try to come to terms with what has happened, I consider myself extremely lucky knowing that my family is safe and that my house still stands. For a large proportion of Indonesians, this is not the case.
Experts say the devastating floods are a reminder that the world’s fourth most populous country is highly vulnerable to climate change, which many blame for the severe downpours. Moreover, as sea level rises, 95 percent of North Jakarta could be submerged by 2050. Today, the city of more than 10 million is facing a dire situation consisting of rising seas and sinking land. Jakarta is a victim of climate change, but it is also a victim of its own policies. The city is sinking (in a process called land subsidence) due to residents and industries draining aquifers- often illegally- to the point that the land is now collapsing. In places along the coastline, the ground has sunk by four meters over the last few decades; the scene is mesmerising as it is terrifying. Near the seafront, waterparks, malls and luxury condos scramble for space with container ports and crammed so tight with fishing docks that from above, they look like tangles of rusted wire snagged on the shore. Some of these docks are now hemmed in by five-metre-high concrete pillars, it is unnerving to know that the concrete barricades are the only thing preventing whole communities from being engulfed by the sea.
The rapid rate at which Jakarta is sinking is partly down to the excessive extraction of groundwater for use as everyday purposes by the residents. Piped water is not reliable or available in most areas so people have no choice but to resort to pumping water from the aquifers deep underground. But when groundwater is pumped out, the land above it sinks, thus leading to land subsidence. It is, in short, the makings of a humanitarian crisis, not just in Jakarta but around the globe. Those who can afford to move away from the sinking and flooding will find comfort elsewhere while the poor drown. Sewage will fill the streets, bringing disease.
The situation is aggravated by lax regulation allowing anyone from individual homeowners to massive shopping mall operators to carry out their own groundwater extractions. People say they have no choice when authorities are unable to meet their water needs and experts confirm that water management authorities can only meet 40% of Jakarta’s demand for water. A 32km outer sea wall is currently being built across Jakarta Bay along with 17 artificial islands, in the hopes of rescuing the sinking city. It’s being supported by the Dutch and South Korean governments and creates an artificial lagoon in which water levels can be lowered to allow the city’s rivers to drain. Jakarta’s new walls have bought it some time, but not much, and possibly not enough.
There is only one solution and everybody knows it. Jakarta would have to halt all groundwater extraction and solely rely on other sources of water, such as rain, river water or piped water from man-made reservoirs.
Whether the city saves itself, or whether it becomes the first megacity lost to environmental catastrophe, will depend on a combination of ground-level social change and engineering works of unprecedented scale to hold back the tide.