Rising seas

the threat on Indonesia’s coastline

By Mast Irham, Adi Weda, Bagus Indahono, Made Nagi and Hotli Simanjuntak

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

Made up of over 17,000 islands and over 54,000 kilometers of coastline, the southeast Asian archipelago nation is one of the most vulnerable in the world to the impacts of the climate crisis, 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 massive population growth over the past 30 years has caused the city – 40% 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 centimeters per year. By 2050, it is estimated that over 95% of North Jakarta will be submerged, according to a report by the Bandung Institute of Technology.

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.

Jumadi and his father are among thousands of Jakartans who have been forced out of their homes to safer areas further away from the encroaching water.

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

Faced with the rampant urban development – coupled with rising sea levels triggered by ever-warming global temperatures – the residents of this slum have been forced to adapt, using stilts to raise their houses above the water, but they were powerless to save the surrounding land they used to grow crops.

“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 leveled up the ground and turned it into warehouses.”


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

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

Sibukdin, 58, leader of the Balik Indigenous community in Sepaku, is worried that the massive 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,” says Sibukin.

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

While Rusli, a fisherman in nearby Balikpapan bay, supports the plan to move the capital city to Nusantara, he hopes the government will give more consideration to communities that are likely to see their fishing grounds in the bay be heavily impacted by the construction project.


Coastal Communities Working Group executive director Mappaselle tells EPA-EFE that the development of the new capital city has reduced fishing areas and could force fishermen to find new, more dangerous waters outside the bay, where their vessels are at risk from choppier seas.

Fishermen back in the current capital Jakarta are facing similar problems. In an attempt to protect the coastline from the rising sea and prevent seawater from entering the city, the government is building a coastal embankment as part of the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) program.

While the hope is that the embankment can help protect Indonesia’s coastline, its construction is affecting the livelihoods of local fishermen like Charmani and Wawang Marbot in northern Jakarta.

The new coastal embankments have enclosed the fishing vessels behind sea walls where only a narrow opening allows access for the boats to moor at the docks.

“The fishermen are miserable,” says Wawang Marbot. “They don't think about catching lots of fish, they are more concerned about how to get into their narrow harbor. Especially for my small boat. If my boat docks here there is a risk of being hit by a bigger boat.”

Marbot says his income has declined significantly since the embankments were built due to the construction work and the fact that larger waves are striking the coastal wall, putting vulnerable fishing boats like his at risk.


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

In the beach resort town of Bali, the non-profit organization the Bali Sea Turtle Society is trying to raise awareness of efforts to protect sea turtles.

Together with the local community, BSTS runs the sea turtle conservation center at Kuta Beach. They rescue sea turtle eggs laid along the beach and move them to the hatchery center, where the turtles have a much better survival rate.

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

The alarming decline in sea turtle nests is mainly caused by beach erosion due to rising sea levels and construction development, as well as plastic trash pollution, BSTS says.

“We have a problem now in Kuta beach because of erosion causing habitat loss, leaving less space for the mother to lay her eggs”, says Wayan Wiradnyana, chairman of BSTS. “Another problem is plastic waste. Everything washes up on the beach when we have a west monsoon. That also makes it difficult for the mother turtle to come up to lay her eggs.”

“So far this year we have only rescued around 20 nests, compared to the other years in the peak season we would have already rescued maybe more than 100,” Wayan adds.

Rising sea levels are also causing rapid coastal erosion in Aceh, in Indonesia’s northwestern tip. The area was heavily impacted by the tsunami disaster in 2004, which exacerbated the destruction of mangrove forests, coconut groves and rice paddies on the province’s west coast.

The coastal erosion and lost mangrove forests have resulted in a huge reduction in land mass, according to non-profit Wetland International, which estimates that between 200 to 400 meters of coastline have been lost to the sea since the tsunami struck. 

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 seeds for free and planting throughout the year.

“By planting mangroves, it becomes the forefront of the coast’s defenses, so sea water does not cause erosion anymore,” says Abdul Hadi. “If the sea level rises, with the presence of mangrove trees, or other trees, settlements would be safer and would no longer erode.” EPA-EFE

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