Jakarta is one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world, and as 40 percent of the Indonesian capital dips below sea-level, the government has pinned its hopes on an enormous, bird-shaped sea wall to drain the harbor and protect the bay from rising tides.
It's not just rising sea levels that are to blame for Jakarta becoming the world’s fastest-sinking major city, but subsidence, the gradual sinking of land due to groundwater extraction.
Wells are bad, in general, for Jakarta, said Gugun Muhammad, a community organizer who lives in North Jakarta. “But not the ones in our neighborhood. I don’t think they contribute to the problem.” That’s why many of his neighbors still use well-water every day, even though that activity, in aggregate, is the reason why Jakarta is falling 7.6 centimeters every year. His reasoning illustrates the difficulty of stopping groundwater extraction in the metropolis of 11 million people.
The “Great Garuda,” named after the holy bird that's an emblem of Indonesia, is the colloquial name of the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development Master Plan. It is a $40 billion undertaking to build a 24 - kilometer seawall and 17 artificial islands around Jakarta’s northern coastline. The old seawall and neighborhoods abutting the coastline are sinking about 25 centimeters a year. For a sense of scale, the famously waterlogged Venice sinks about 38 centimeters annually.
A trilateral partnership between Indonesia, the Netherlands, and South Korea is responsible for the Great Garuda’s construction. But the project has been touch and go, due both to its massive scale and the political turmoil from the blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s governor. With every passing monsoon, the stakes for its completion increase.
Jakarta's municipal government doesn’t supply enough potable water, so many residents get all or part of their water supply from illegal wells – about 75% them, according to a 2006 U.N. Habitat report. And the residents most likely to rely on wells are the residents of poor coastal neighborhoods in North Jakarta – exactly the part of the city that's sinking fastest.
Wells are not the only culprit of subsidence: construction projects, the natural settlement of loose soil, and tectonic subsidence (the large-scale sinking of the Earth's crust) also play a role. But groundwater pumping is the biggest man-made factor.
To counter this, the Great Garuda would create a huge, enclosed “storage lake” in Jakarta Bay.
“We expect to complete the emergency portions of the project within three years, and the whole thing within ten years,” said Victor Coenen, the project manager for Witteveen+Bos, the Dutch engineering firm overseeing the sea wall. “By the former, we mean the parts of the old sea wall that may ‘pop’ during high tides or the monsoon.” Construction started in 2015, and is currently ongoing in Pluit, the North Jakarta neighborhood that has been the site of many evictions in recent months.
Jakarta is one of the few global cities where a harbor view is undesirable. Wealthy residents cloister in leafy Central and South Jakarta suburbs. The pitfalls of coastal Jakarta have been evident since the Dutch colonial era, when settlers abandoned the flooding harbor for higher areas. As a result, it is the city’s poorest who live in its northern kampungs, or neighborhoods, like Pasar Ikan (“fish market”) and Luar Batang.
These residents have been subject to a tough eviction program by Jakarta’s governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who hopes to redevelop the harbor for tourism and commerce. At the same time, they have received little direct instruction on how to transition away from pumping groundwater.
“No one has ever explained to us why wells are bad for the environment,” said Muhammad, who lives in North Jakarta’s Kampung Tongkol. He said a French company, PAM Lyonnaise Jaya, has supplied water to his neighborhood for six or seven years, but only enough for some people’s drinking water, and hardly any at all for bathing or toilets. Would his kampung ever transition fully to piped water? “Maybe yes – if clean water was priced cheaper, and also easier to get,” said Muhammad.
Criticism from environmentalists
A 2015 study from Jakarta’s own Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry stated that Great Garuda would have negative environmental effects like submerging historic islands and destroying coral reefs.
The 17 artificial islands called for in the Garuda plan would change sea currents, write the study authors, which can erode natural islands and aggravate flooding in North Jakarta. Plus, the unsanitized river water that would pour into the bay could concentrate pollution in the waterfront. “As the water is trapped, the pollutants deposited by the 13 rivers in Jakarta would accumulate in one place,” Taslim Arifin, a ministry researcher, told the Jakarta Post.
The study suggested trying harder to eliminate groundwater extraction than to build an expensive wall. “Although it took them decades, Tokyo and Bangkok have managed to stop groundwater extraction and Jakarta definitely can do it, too. It must,” said Arifin.
Coenen said that the project is awaiting an official decision from President Joko Widodo about the environmental concerns raised by the report. When that will be issued, he said, is "the thousand dollar question." "After the Jakarta elections anyway, but when exactly? No one knows. "Until then, he said, his team is focusing on emergency measures.
Despite the urgency of of putting a stopper in sinking Jakarta, the Great Garuda’s construction has slowed amidst the trial of Jakarta’s governor, which came to monopolize political discourse by the end of 2016.
“Our project is already delayed, and I’m sure that the election will have a big impact on its future,” said Coenen. He said his firm hasn’t even finalized its Indonesian leadership, with much of the project’s fate up in the air. The gubernatorial election is scheduled for February, but could drag on until May if there is a runoff.
“Ahok is a geologist by training, so he knows how to solve this problem,” said Emmy Hafidz, a spokesperson for the governor. “By 2019, he plans – and this is already ongoing – for all Jakartans to be supplied by pipe water, including the commercial sector.” She outlined plans for a wastewater recycling plant and a dam near the North Jakarta coastline.
Ahok has been a reasonably good partner during his term, said Coenen, although he was more focused on the “here and now than the long-term future.”
“As a Dutchman, we always look at water management from a long-term perspective. But I do see that Indonesia has a different tradition, and immediate, everyday problems tend to have higher priority,” he said. “It’s a bit frustrating.”