OPINION: Act now to protect Indonesia's sinking cities from climate change

by Denia Syam & Yoko Okura | Mercy Corps
Tuesday, 30 March 2021 06:15 GMT

People ride motorbikes through a flooded road with red water due to the dye-waste from cloth factories, in Pekalongan, Central Java province, Indonesia, February 6, 2021 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Harviyan Perdana Putra/via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Heavy groundwater extraction, compounded by worsening floods as the climate warms, raises the prospect of lost land and forced relocation

Last month the Indonesian city of Pekalongan trended in the global media when severe river flooding caused a leak from a textile factory, turning the water a surreal blood red. 

Bizarre scenes followed as children and people on motorbikes waded through the crimson waters, like a scene from an apocalyptic horror movie. 

Had it not been for the arresting images, this would have been ‘just another’ under-reported local flooding event. But for the people in the area the reality is much starker, more chilling and potentially devastating. 

This is because Pekalongan City and Regency, home to 1.2 million people, is sinking; just like the much larger metropolis to the west, Jakarta the capital of Indonesia.

As a result, the Indonesian government is faced with tough choices and in the case of Jakarta has plans to move the capital to the less populated island of Borneo at the cost of tens of billions.

Sinking cities, relocating millions of people and essential infrastructure. These are drastic measures, and at Mercy Corps we’re concerned with what’s causing them to sink.

In Pekalongan at least, excessive ground water extraction has led to rapid land subsidence. We know from our own research that land subsidence is occurring due to poor coastal management planning. The lack of clean water services is driving over-extraction of groundwater by communities and businesses. 

The rapid and significant rate of subsidence has led to some areas of the Northern Java coast becoming water basins, with the land below sea level. In turn this has led to chronic and sometimes irreversible impacts of flooding, such as land permanently swamped with water.

Combine this with more intense weather-related hazards like flooding fuelled by the climate emergency and the prospect is permanently lost land as well as ruined lives and livelihoods.

In fact, since 2011, nearly 700 hectares of land in Pekalongan City and Regency previously used for farming and aquaculture is now permanently inundated. And as we reveal, by 2035, 90% of the city will be covered by water.

As land is lost, demand for fresh drinking water and food will increase, not least because the local population is growing by about 1% a year.

Villages in Pekalongan Regency have already been partially lost, too.

In one village called Semut, a total of 15 hectares is water-covered due to tidal flooding. The villagers wrestle daily with tidal floods and during peak season the water reaches 5 metres above sea level, forcing people to evacuate.

As you’d expect, this makes life for these people unbearable. It causes economic and non-economic losses, for example biodiversity, assets, cultural heritage, and health.

STARK CHOICES

Something must be done and we’re acting.

Through the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance program, Mercy Corps Indonesia works with the Pekalongan City and Regency governments to promote evidence-based policy making and program development.

Together we provide insight into how poorly planned development activities, like groundwater dependence for water supply in downstream areas, exacerbates flood impacts.

We also shed light on how current development practices in the downstream and coastal areas intensify the impact of city flooding.

All of this has serious implications for people’s lives and livelihoods. We expect to see a 100-fold increase in residential areas flooded in Pekalongan City and Regency in the next 15 years.

These alarming predictions leave the Pekalongan governments with some stark choices on how to deal with the loss of productive land and assets.

At a minimum they need a water resource strategy to reduce the rate of land subsidence; as well as plans to limit the impact of destructive water force in downstream and coastal areas and adapt to irreversible losses.

In addition, an environmental health strategy is needed to improve the quality of city-wide sanitation; not to mention social and economic blueprints to coastal communities and the fisheries sector. What’s also needed is a plan to promote better water and disaster management.

The severe flooding and loss of valuable land in Pekalongan should alarm the authorities of other coastal cities globally. They face uncertain and unpredictable futures due to climate change, too.

Assessments like our climate risk and impact analysis can provide evidence for decision-makers to better understand current and future risks. It can enable evidence-based policy and program development that sees climate financing (which is massively under-funded and not invested where it’s needed most, our research revealed) as an investment for sustainable solutions.

Communities face a difficult decision – to transform their livelihoods to continue living in flooded areas, or to relocate. Moving away from homelands with deep cultural and socio-economic ties is not a preferred decision for many. Decisions on who will be relocated, when and how will require evidence, cooperation, and transparency in decision-making and planning.

For communities to adapt to the environment, local officials and national-level governments need to make hard choices about how and where to invest in technology and nature-based solutions to protect people and the environment from more intense and severe flood events. 

Will we rise to this challenge before rising sea-levels swallow coastal cities? Only time will tell.

Denia Syam is manager of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance program at Mercy Corps Indonesia. Yoko Okura is Asia climate change advisor and regional manager for the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance at Mercy Corps.