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The Drowning Land

Parts of Indonesia’s coastline are disappearing as sea levels rise. Photojournalist Garry Andrew Lotulung documents the slow disappearence of Karawang and Pekalongan in Java, Indonesia.

Von akutmag

Pictures and Text by Garry Andrew Lotulung

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest archipelagic country comprising over 17’000 islands. With the majority of the small islands only one meter above sea level, coastal areas are being threatened by climate change. Deforestation, landscape reclamation, and the illegal extraction of groundwater by the industry on the coasts make these areas even more vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Experts predict that before 2050, thousands of small islands and millions of houses in coastal areas across Indonesia will disappear due to rising sea levels caused by climate change. 

Sea Level rise is real and will have an incredible impact on coastal regions in the world, like here in Karawang (West Java) and Pekalongan (Central Java), Indonesia.

Picture 1:
Jusyang (54) stands in front of his destroyed home that was hit by high waves due to rising sea levels at Cemarajaya Village of Karawang regency in West Java, Indonesia on January 4, 2023.

Picture 2:
A woman searches for recyclable waste as she walks through floodwaters from rising sea levels at Jeruk Sari village on June 5, 2021, in Pekalongan, Central Java, Indonesia.

Karawang Regency is located on the northern coast of West Java, about 100 km from Jakarta, the capital of the Republic of Indonesia. Some areas of Cemarajaya Village, Cibuaya Subdistrict, were ranked as the most severely impacted by abrasion. 

Cemarajaya village is sinking due to global climate change. Rising sea levels, in conjunction with tides, cause environmental and material damage. Since two decades, the 6 km long coastline from the village border has been slowly but steadily eroding.

Over 300 households were displaced due to abrasion and more are following. The ocean engulfs more than thousands of hectares of land in some of the villages, where one of the hamlets has now completely sunk below sea level.

The large income from the Pisangan Beach tourism object, which previously was able to provide the village with Rp. 80 million per month during the 1990s, is now history.

With the sea rising the land gradually morphed into becoming fish ponds and mangrove forests which are now also submerged. As the land is covered by more water former farmers are now fishermen. Households are cut off from the land, as bridges and roads sink below sea level forcing the villagers to adapt and survive in different ways. When alive, the residents live with the seawater, they are surrounded by it, even inside their homes.

Cemarajaya Village has lost 500 to 800 meters of land from the current coastline.

A drone view of the village at a coast affected by abrasion at Pisangan Beach in Cemarajaya Village of Karawang regency in West Java, Indonesia on June 21, 2023. The impact of sea level rise and tidal flooding have been out missing around 300 houses in coastal Karawang. Rob floods have destroyed and inundated several villages and urban centers including farm fields in nearly all parts of Karawang.

Rudi Candia, the village head of Cemarajaya, still clearly remembers the fish ponds, housing complex, and small soccer field that have disappeared due to rising sea levels.

Not only Rudi, but Yusuf, 20 years old, one of the village youths, also admits to being a witness to the decline in the quality of the village environment. This man, who was born in 2002, saw that the expanse of mangroves was no longer able to stem the strong tidal waves, and as a result, abrasion and subsidence were inevitable.

Dusun Mekarjaya is the most remote area of the village and has a small, surviving monastery. This village is known for its diversity and religious tolerance. Currently, the only remaining monastery in Mekarjaya Village is guarded by a Muslim named Camrad. He claimed to have guarded this monastery for 10 years from seawater flooding.

Since two decades ago, residents have begun to build embankments and raise their houses to prevent flooding. The government has also placed long breakwaters and sandbags along the coastline, but the fight against rising sea levels due to the climate crisis looks unlikely to be won.

Picture 1:
A villager holds a hose as he fills water to the sandbags to slow down the pace of the rising sea impacting their village at Pisangan Beach in Cemarajaya Village of Karawang regency in West Java, Indonesia on January 4, 2023.

Picture 2:
Children sit on sandbags beside a destroyed road that was hit by high waves due to rising sea levels at Cemarajaya Village of Karawang regency in West Java, Indonesia on January 3, 2023.

Almost every day, the sea, which used to lap the shore a few kilometres away, floods the village, clear evidence of the threat that Java’s sinking coastline poses to millions of people. Experts say Pisangan Beach in Cemarajaya Village and scores of other villages and towns along the shoreline are being inundated because of a grim combination of man-made environmental destruction and climate change.

This village will be disappearing, eroding with each passing tide. The immediate effect of sea level rise is tidal flooding and the banks of the coast are getting wasted by these tidal floods, the magnitude of which is increasing with time. The villagers witnessed the disappearance of their land, which was once productive land used for agriculture. 

The villagers are staring at a bleak future where the probability of them becoming climate refugees looms large. The scenes in the village stand testament to the growing threat of global warming.

A woman vendor walks along a flooded road surrounded by rising sea levels at Jeruksari village, Pekalongan, Central Java, Indonesia, June 2021.

Another problem about tidal flooding and land subsidence in the village of Simonet, Pekalongan, Central Java. With the subsidence, the coastline is getting closer to the residential areas. Some residents chose to flee because their home was being damaged. Others still survived and continued to live with the flood.

Mr. Rasali, who is still holding on to his house, which was affected by the sea water, said his family home was damaged by exposure to the sea, which was several hundred meters further out just 10-12 years ago in this village of Simonet.

Scene a house are seen surrounded by rising sea levels, which residents say was hundreds of meters from the beach just 10-12 years ago at Simonet village north of Pekalongan, Central Java, on 4 June 2021.

The rapid and high rate of land subsidence has led to the permanent inundation of villages in coastal areas and forced some parts of the community to relocate from their ancestral lands. Residents who have opted to stay in permanently inundated areas due to their socioeconomic status are faced with the difficult task of transforming their livelihoods to withstand these climate impacts.

The Greater Pekalongan Area on the north coast of Java, comprised of Pekalongan City and Regency and home to 1.2 million people, is frequently affected by severe coastal, tidal, and sea tides. Historically, the Pekalongan coastal area has experienced a sea level rise of 5 mm per year, which is higher than that of the Java Sea, which is generally 3.9 mm per year. The rapid rate of land subsidence in Pekalongan, estimated at 10–17 cm per year (2012–2018), combined with rising sea levels, makes the area especially vulnerable to flooding.

Tidal floods have various impacts on the social and economic conditions of the community, thus affecting their livelihoods.

A man carries a fishing net after collecting clams near an abandoned mosque that already drowned at high sea level in the Muara Baru district in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 2021. Jakarta, also one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world under the weight of out-of-control development and rising sea levels caused by global warming.

Bandengan village, home to some 200 families and located about one kilometer from the beach, has for the past ten years been flooded by sea water because of rising sea levels.

Lukman, 25 years old, one of the village youths, said their houses were completely surrounded by rice fields and are now inundated with seawater in Bandengan village. As the land subsided and the sea rose, the houses were flooded. Lukman and his family have lost their farmland.

Picture 1:
Houses are seen surrounded by rising sea levels at Jeruksari village, Pekalongan, Central Java, Indonesia, June 2021.

Picture 2:
Children sit in front of his home during high tides at Cemarajaya Village of Karawang regency in West Java, Indonesia on January 4, 2023.

Robust floods have destroyed and inundated several villages and urban centers, including farm fields in nearly all parts of Pekalongan, and farmers have had to head to the city to find other means of livelihood. It is the harshest spinoff of climate change this city has witnessed.

A woman living right on the bank of the Cilemahabang River on September 8, 2021. The Cilemahabang River in Bekasi has earned notoriety as one of the most polluted rivers in West Java due to industrial waste and urban garbage, but it appears that people living on its banks continue to depend on it for sanitation.

The impact of rising sea levels is getting worse due to land subsidence. Heri Andreas, a geodesy researcher from the Bandung Institute of Technology, said that in the next 10 years, the coastal area of Pekalongan, including the Simonet area, will be the first area in Indonesia and the world to sink rapidly. The prediction is based on the ground surface rate.

Indonesia, an archipelago of thousands of islands, has about 81,000 km (50,000 miles) of coastline, making it particularly vulnerable to climate change.

21. Januar 2024

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