Planning to move

A city of ten million people is rapidly sinking, which is a little worrying since it’s a coastal city.

THIS WEEK, AMID devastating flooding, Indonesia announced it’s planning to move its capital out of Jakarta, which really is nothing new—the country’s first president was talking about it way back in 1957. Part of the problem is extreme congestion, but today the city of more than 10 million is facing nothing short of obliteration by rising seas and sinking land, two opposing yet complementary forces of doom. Models predict that by 2050, 95 percent of North Jakarta could be submerged. And Jakarta is far from alone—cities the world over are drowning and sinking, and there’s very little we can do about it short of stopping climate change entirely.

Bombay? New York? Tokyo? Shanghai? Miami?

Jakarta’s situation may be particularly dire, but it isn’t the only coastal metropolis that’s sinking. “Almost every coastal city around the world builds on loose sediment, and all of them are subsiding, regardless of pumping groundwater,” says Arizona State University geophysicist Manoochehr Shirzaei, who studies land subsidence. “In fact, vertical land motion is as important as sea level rise, but unfortunately it gets very little attention, because the process is slow.”

That’s an inevitable consequence of building on landfill, but Jakarta has the power to cut back on the groundwater pumping that’s the root of the crisis. Except, even that won’t save the day. “This has been happening for so long, that when you remove water from the ground the porous structure collapses,” says University of Oregon earth scientist Estelle Chaussard, who’s studied land subsidence in Jakarta. “The problem is that a large amount of this subsidence, and this decrease in porous storage of the aquifer, is irreversible.” Not only that, layers of the porous earth will keep deforming even if you stop pumping groundwater, potentially causing further subsidence, though at least a smaller amount of it.

Even if Jakarta could stop land subsidence, it’s still sitting on the edge of the sea, and seas are rising. The city has already deployed a network of canals and seawalls to stave off the threat, but with climate change the threat will only grow worse.

The rich will escape and the poor will drown. Oh and by the way Jakarta is running out of drinking water, with no good solution available.

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