Irma Susanti lives a few metres away from a concrete wall that barely keeps seawater from inundating her slum neighbourhood in the north of the Indonesian capital.
A few years ago, authorities raised the wall by nearly a metre, to 2.3 metres high. But even that is sometimes not enough to prevent the dark brown smelly water from entering her house during torrential rain.
On the other side of the wall, the water is covered in a thick carpet of rubbish: tyres, flip-flops, used plastic cups, plastic bags and condoms.
Irma sits on a bench in the scorching sun, her 1-year-old daughter in her arms and an older woman next to her.
“We are always on the lookout for flooding, because the wall can’t always keep the water out,” the 30-year-old mother of two says.
The flooding is worst in January and February, she says, when rain is frequent or when the tide is high.
“My husband works here as a fisherman, so we have no choice but to stay,” Irma says.
No other city in the world is sinking faster than Jakarta. Twenty per cent of the territory is below sea level, and that figure is set to nearly double by 2050, according to researchers at the Bandung Institute of Technology.
The situation is most dire in Jakarta’s northern neighbourhoods, which researchers say will be nearly completely flooded in three decades.
That’s the case at the Wall Adhuna mosque in the harbour district, about 10 minutes by foot from Irma’s neighbourhood. Built during the Dutch era as a small mosque for Muslim sailors, it was abandoned in 2005 after it was flooded, and a wall was built to separate it from dry land. The mosque now stands like a monument to a flood apocalypse, its roof half-collapsed and its walls covered with mould.
Jakarta was founded in 1527 by the sultan of the Sunda Kingdom, who conquered the area from the Portuguese and named it Jayakarta, or Great Victory.
Dutch colonial rulers later renamed the city Batavia as they set out to create a tropical Amsterdam with a dense network of streets and canals. Today, it bears little resemblance to the Dutch capital, with hundreds of thousands of cars idling in hours-long traffic jams, few pedestrians and only a handful of green spaces.
Over 30 million people live in Jakarta and its larger metropolitan area today. Nearly all of the 13 rivers that criss-cross Jakarta are dirty and foul-smelling. Apartment buildings now tower where mangrove forests once stood. In nearby landfills, plastic is burned.
But why is Jakarta sinking? Sea levels are rising, and serious city planning has been absent for a long time. The city is mostly paved with asphalt and concrete, which means that water has nowhere to go during heavy rainfall. But Jakarta’s sinking has less to do with what happens above ground than what happens below.
Around half of Jakarta’s households are connected to the privatized piped water network, but others are forced to pump their water out of the ground by hand or with electric pumps. The continuous extraction of groundwater means that the land above it sinks.
“It’s like a quiet, very slow murder,” says urban planner Nirwono Joga, who advises the government of President Joko Widodo. “You do not even see the bottom sinking in most neighbourhoods. This happens so slowly that most of them are not aware of it.”
Large hotels, factories and shopping malls also have their own pump systems. “The problems are man-made and not nature’s,” Nirwono says.
For households that are neither connected to the water supply system nor able to pump, clean water has to be delivered by truck. This is the case for Irma’s family, whose two blue 250-litre tanks are located directly on the protective sea wall. Irma cooks, washes and bathes using the water. One hundred litres cost about one dollar – not an insignificant sum for Irma or her neighbours.
“None of us has a pump,” she says. “The water here is disgusting. Filters don’t help either.”
Jakarta’s sinking is visible in other areas. In the North Jakarta subdistrict of Penjaringan, houses that used to be at ground level are now about one metre lower. Residents who used to look down on the street from their homes now live below it.
“The last time I had a flood, water as high as 20 centimetres inundated the kitchen,” says Abdul Mukti, a Penjaringan resident.
Water is seeping from the ground in front of the 62-year-old’s salmon-coloured house, but he says has no intention of moving elsewhere and does not believe that the area could sink further.
“I’m not afraid,” he says. “Flooding is only a few days a year. The rest of the year I can live without problems.”
In the nearby neighbourhood of Akuarium, dozens of houses were demolished in 2016 because of flooding, but some residents have stayed put, making do with life in makeshift shelters.
The continual sinking is not for a lack of bold ideas among city leaders. After a major flood in 2007, the city commissioned a Dutch company to build a 57-kilometre seawall several kilometres offshore, and artificial islands called Kita (We), Maju (Progress) and Bersama (Together) have been built. But the houses built there are just as empty as the streets, and the island project has been dogged by corruption allegations.
The latest plan to address Jakarta’s sinking problem is perhaps the most ambitious yet: to build a whole new capital outside Java, some 1,200 kilometres from Jakarta.
Under the proposed plan, the new capital will be built in the jungles of Borneo island, somewhere halfway between the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda.
The cost of the move to the new unnamed capital is estimated at more than 30 billion dollars. The first officials are scheduled to move into their new offices as early as 2024 – the last year of the president’s final term in office. Some Indonesians joke that the new capital should be named Jokograd, after the president.
Despite the national efforts, hardly anyone in the poor neighbourhoods along the protective walls is perturbed by the prospects of sinking.
“I know it costs a lot of money,” Irma says. “But if the government think it’s for the best, I have no problems. We are only small people.”