Indonesia’s capital Jakarta—home to over 10 million people—is sinking. Barring dramatic policy and behavioural changes, parts of Jakarta could be entirely submerged by 2050. Almost half of the city is already below sea level. Its worst-affected area—North Jakarta—has sunk 2.5 metres in the last decade; further, it seems likely to continue at a yearly rate of up to 25 centimetres!
The bleak prospect of Jakarta sinking in the near future is one of the most pressing environmental and climate-related issues in Indonesia. Earlier this year, Parliament passed a bill to relocate the nation’s capital to East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo as early as 2024—a move that many believe was precipitated by Jakarta’s sinking.
Jakarta faces a climate change double whammy
Climate change is not helping: the combination of rising sea levels and flooding from increasingly extreme rainfall both pose big threats for coastal areas like Jakarta. One solution to keep the Java Sea from swallowing the city is the impressive Giant Sea Wall in North Jakarta, a project initiated by the provincial government. However, at an estimated cost of US$40 billion, it is widely considered a short-term solution—if that! If you want to read more about the project—it is truly impressive!—I recommend this write-up.
Beneath the surface
Beyond the climate-change induced threats, a less well-known part of the problem is actually due to massive ground water extraction. For complex and in part historical reasons, most of Jakarta’s residents rely on groundwater for their daily needs. This may not come as a surprise for anyone who has lived in Jakarta. However, even as a lifelong resident of Jakarta, I was unaware of the terrifying scale of the problem: ground water consumption accounts for a staggering 60 percent of annual water consumption, or roughly 1 billion cubic meters!
You may wonder why the demand for groundwater is so high, but your guess is probably as good as mine. What is clear, however, is that the city has too little piped water, and much of it comes from Jakarta’s 13 heavily polluted rivers; as a result, it is often contaminated and unhealthy. This leaves residents with no choice but to rely on groundwater.
Roughly seven in ten people in Jakarta rely on some form of bottled water for their drinking water. For those who cannot afford bottled water, however, the groundwater poses an increasingly severe health hazard. In densely populated areas, primarily home to low-income residents (15% of Jakarta’s population), research by the ADB has shown that groundwater is heavily contaminated by E-coli and heavy metals.
Regulations compete with strong social norms
To deter further drilling, Jakarta’s provincial government recently announced a ban on groundwater extraction by owners of large buildings (> 5,000 square meters). Set to kick in by August 2023, it is unclear how the well-intended regulation will solve the problem absent an alternative water source. Unless some form of piped water supply exists that can provide a reliable service to satisfy the huge demand for water from hotels, malls, and apartments, the regulation will face tremendous pressure.
One policy option could be to discourage households that have access to piped water but who choose to extract ground water. Encouraging households to limit ground water intake is not going to be an easy task—drilling deep for fresh water has become the norm among wealthy households in Jakarta.
Imams to the rescue?
Why do people continue to extract groundwater if they know it contributes to the sinking of their city? Is it an example of the tragedy of the commons? Are those who drill actually unaware that their behavior is sinking Jakarta further? Or is it something they are aware of, but that they think is outside of their control? Perhaps they reason that Jakarta is sinking anyway and there is nothing humans can do to prevent it? A 2019 YouGov survey revealed that many Indonesians (1 in 5) believe that climate change is part of God’s will, at least when it comes to natural disasters and climate change.
Recently, there has been a growing movement to engage religious leaders to combat environmental and climate change issues due to their huge influence. This movement, spearheaded by Muslim clerics and organizations, is also taking place in Indonesia, perhaps because these leaders realize that a large majority of Indonesian population trust them as a reliable source of information.
For example, the Indonesia's highest Muslim clerical council has issued non-legally binding fatwa against environmental issues, such as against the burning of land and forests. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry recently formed an official partnership with the largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), to promote clean energy movement.
But, will this movement work? Should the Jakarta provincial government turn to religious organizations to keep Jakarta afloat (albeit only for a little bit longer)? I don’t know the answers. These are empirical questions that need to be tested. But I think it sounds promising. If nothing else, Islam offers a great platform on a scale that is hard to beat: with a primarily muslim population, Indonesia has 800,000 mosques nationwide and more than 30,000 Islamic boarding schools. It is hard to imagine a better soap box!
6 October 2022