Vanishing City- Jakarta’s Sinking Crisis

Jakarta, capital of Indonesia and home to 10 million people, is now facing a pernicious crisis, and this is not something new in Jakarta. The primary reason for the sinking of this important city is the excessive usage of groundwater, but why is Jakarta over-dependant on groundwater? Where did this all start? Let’s go all the way back to the 1600’s, In the 1600s, when European powers were colonising the world, the Dutch took over what was then, the port town of Jayakarta. They razed it to the ground, and in its place, built Batavia, a headquarters for their growing empire.They began to rule over the Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, and Arab people who had lived there for centuries, and built their new city in the Dutch style, with narrow townhouses along a grid of canals.

However, there weren’t many bridges connected the two blocks separated by the canals. This was made by design. The Dutch were outnumbers so, in order to control local population, they divided them. The Dutch ruled over the local population like this for over a century. But that began to change in the mid-1700’s. Because the Dutch didn’t properly maintain the canals, they began to deteriorate, and sediment from earthquakes blocked the flow of water. The water in the canals turned stagnant, and soon, deadly. As disease spread through the canals, the wealthier Dutch moved south of Batavia where they began to develop a new colonial administrative centre. But, despite the death and disease, the Dutch continued to leave the canals untreated. Instead, they began to use piped water. In the 1870s, they developed the first centralised water supply, with iron pipes to distribute water to homes. The pipes provided clean drinking water and indoor bathrooms. But the pipes were concentrated in these areas, where the Dutch had moved to. The indigenous population was left in informal settlements, called “kampongs," far from the piped water. And this created a new kind of segregation in the city. Native residents had to rely on street vendors for water. But most often, they were forced to get their water from the neglected canals. But most often, they were forced to get their water from the neglected canals. It took decades before pipes were finally built in these communities. And when they were, it would only be a few public standpipes. This continued through 1949. After an armed conflict, the Dutch finally recognised Indonesia’s independence, and left. The legacy they left behind was a sprawling city, built on marshland, and separated by water access, that, now, Jakartans had to deal with.

But How Exactly Does Extracting Excessive Groundwater Cause The Sinking?

Think of the soil as a soaked sponge. The pumps go deep into the ground to extract the water stored in aquifers, underground layers of rock that hold groundwater. The porous spaces of the rock are filled with it. The more water is extracted, the more the soil deflates, causing it to compact and collapse, and the ground above it to sink. Aquifers are usually refilled naturally when it rains. But in Jakarta, that’s becoming increasingly rare. For decades, Jakarta has been developing at a fast pace, and is now covered in concrete. So the rainfall that would usually fill up the aquifers isn’t being absorbed. It’s gotten so bad that in coastal areas prone to flooding, like the fishing community Muara Baru, people have built makeshift bridges to move through their neighbourhoods. Floods are more deadly than ever because water can not smoothly flow into the ocean and on top of that, sea level is rising substantially due to the melting of glaciers.

So What Next?

Ceasing the consumption of groundwater isn’t going to be easy, because 60% of Jakarta’s residents use groundwater for everything including drinking water and bathing. The situation is exacerbated by lax regulation allowing just about anyone, from individual homeowners to massive shopping mall operators, to carry out their own groundwater extractions. There is technology to replace groundwater deep at its source but it's extremely expensive. Tokyo used this method, known as artificial recharge, when it faced severe land subsidence 50 years ago. The government also restricted groundwater extraction and businesses were required to use reclaimed water. Land subsidence subsequently halted. But Jakarta needs alternative water sources for that to work. It could take up to 10 years to clean up the rivers, dams and lakes to allow water to be piped anywhere or used as a replacement for the aquifers deep underground. Jakarta is expected to be completely submerge by 2050, and residents are running out of time. The Indonesian government had decided to move their capital to the island of Borneo but developing an inchoate island and transporting 10 million people will certainly not be easy. They have tried building seawalls, to stop the water from flooding the land as it sinks, however the seawall is sinking, just like the rest of Jakarta. The Indonesian government are preparing for a $40billion plan to build a 38 km wall , shaped like a massive bird, to protect the coast from flooding. But this project could take upto 30 years to complete, and by then it will be too late. “The Big Durian” is to eventually fall, but saving the stranded Jakartans should be the chief priority

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