Photo essay: Rising sea levels are sinking Indonesia's coastlines

The south-east Asian archipelago is one of the most vulnerable in the world to the effects of climate change

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Communities and fragile ecosystems along Indonesia’s coastlines are increasingly at risk as sea waters rise to unprecedented levels.

Made up of more than 17,000 islands and more than 54,000 kilometres of coastline, the south-east Asian archipelago country is one of the most vulnerable in the world to the effects of climate change, according to a joint report by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

Nowhere is the threat of rising sea levels clearer than Indonesia’s sprawling capital, Jakarta.

Rapid urban development and population growth over the past 30 years has caused the city – 40 per cent of which already lies below sea level – to sink further, as the paddies and mangroves that would naturally protect the city from excess water are replaced by asphalt and concrete.

The impact is most visible in the north of the city, which is sinking at a rate of 25 centimetres a year. By 2050, it is estimated that more than 95 per cent of North Jakarta will be submerged, according to a report by the Bandung Institute of Technology.

Jumadi Guthafsitom, 40, near the abandoned Waladuna mosque, which has been sinking because of rising seawater and land erosion in the Muara Baru area on Jakarta's northern coast. EPA

Jumadi Guthafsitom, 40, grew up in Muara Bar, a slum area of North Jakarta, and today works at the local fish market, just a stone’s throw from the Waladuna mosque, where he used to play as a child.

Today, the mosque has been abandoned due to the rising water and land subsidence in the area.

“This was my childhood playground – it used to be very beautiful,” Jumadi says, recalling how he would join his mother and father for daily prayers before the mosque was finally lost to the water in 2010.

Residents of West Jakarta face similar challenges. The village that Susnadi, 58, grew up in used to be on dry land, but huge construction projects over the past 20 years have caused the area to sink further below sea level, leading to severe flooding every year.

“It was once a beautiful place, with a lot of trees,” Susnadi says. “Then there was a lot of construction and development, the area behind the village was a paddy field and turned to swamp, they levelled up the ground and turned it into warehouses.”

A new capital city

The sinking is so severe that Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced in 2019 that the government was moving the capital city 2,000km to East Kalimantan on Borneo island.

The new capital, Nusantara, is currently being built, raising concerns over the construction’s effect on the environment and local indigenous peoples.

Sibukdin, 58, leader of the Balik indigenous community, is concerned that construction of the new capital city will displace indigenous people. EPA

Sibukdin, 58, leader of the Balik Indigenous community in Sepaku, is worried that the building project will displace indigenous people whose livelihoods depend on the land and the forest.

“We want our place where we plant and live to remain the same and not to be disturbed,” Sibukdin says.

“I hope the government pays more attention to our community. We are also humans who have the same rights. We want justice for everyone.”

Rising sea levels not only threaten human activity and communities – ecological habitats in Indonesia’s coastal areas are also increasingly in danger.

The number of sea turtles nesting on Kuta beach is decreasing drastically every year, the Bali Sea Turtle Society says. Before 2020 they would rescue about 700 nests in a year. But last year they recorded only about 200 sea turtle nests on Kuta beach.

Mangrove forests to the rescue

Abdul Hadi, director of the Aceh Jaya Mangrove Institute Foundation, believes that healthy mangrove forests are key to protecting land areas from rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

His foundation supports planting mangroves throughout Aceh by donating free seeds and planting throughout the year.

“By planting mangroves, it becomes the forefront of the coast’s defences, so seawater does not cause erosion any more,” he says. “If the sea level rises, with the presence of mangrove trees, or other trees, settlements would be safer and would no longer erode.”

Updated: May 26, 2023, 6:01 PM