Jakarta, Amsterdam, Lagos, Venice, Fiji, Alexandria, Kiribati, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, French Polynesia, Charleston, Miami, New Orleans, Solomon Islands, Dhaka, Maldives, Houston, Tuvalu, Rotterdam…
What do all these places have in common?
At face value, not much it would appear. These cities and islands are spread far and wide across the globe and are as diverse in their people and cultures as they are their landscapes and ecosystems.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll start having water well around your feet. That’s the reality of these places, and more. Because these cities are “sinking” at an alarming rate due to rising sea levels and excessive groundwater removal, leaving the population vulnerable to displacement, diseases, and ultimately the loss of homes and lives.
At present, roughly 40 per cent of the population of the world lives within 100 kilometers of the coast, putting immense pressure on coastal ecosystems and leaving a growing population vulnerable to sea-level rise and other coastal hazards, according to the UN.
For millennia, humans have loved to congregate around bodies of water to give us easy access to domestic and agricultural water supply, fishing, lifestyle benefits, waterborne transportation and trade.
But between 1900 and 2018, the global average sea level rose by 16–21 centimetres, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And by 2100 the sea level is very likely to rise 30–130 cm above what it was in the year 2000, the US global change research program estimates.
NASA has launched the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 Sea Level Projection Tool, mapping projections of future sea level rise globally from 2020 to 2150 depending upon future emissions scenarios. Launch the tool here.
In South East Asia for example, “six hundred million people across the region live in low elevation coastal zones, all vulnerable to sea level rise, flooding, storm surges and extreme weather events like tsunamis and typhoons,” says award-winning documentary-maker, Liz Courtney whose new documentary series Changing Ocean Asia to be released 31st January examines how climate change is affecting sea level rise and the sinking cities of Asia.
“A 0.5 rise in sea level has the potential to double the impact of a tsunami in the region… reaching the shores of the Philippine’s in under 60 mins and southern China in under 120 mins.”
Relocation or forced displacement
Last week the Indonesian parliament approved President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s legislation setting out a relocation of 1.5 million civil servants (14 per cent of the city’s 11 million residents) from the vast and overpopulated metropolis of Jakarta on Java Island (home to 54 per cent of the country’s 260 million people) to a sparkling new capital city Nusantara (which translates as “archipelago”) to be built in the pristine rainforest habitat of Borneo (famous for its endangered orangutans, sun bears, pangolins, and sambar deers).
He announced the surprise plan to relocate Jakarta’s capital on 16 August 2019 during an annual address to the nation. Due to sinking (land subsidence) and flooding caused by excessive unregulated groundwater pumping and rising sea levels, much of Jakarta is expected to be underwater by 2050.
“A capital city is not just a symbol of national identity, but also a representation of the progress of the nation,” Indonesian President Widodo said. “This is for the realisation of economic equality and justice.”
Rohan Hamden, chief executive of climate change infrastructure risk assurance service The Cross Dependency Initiative told The Fifth Estate that the move is unprecedented, but says that “taking a long term view it’s a good idea”.
“The current location and operation of the capital is not sustainable, so moving to another island makes sense from a purely climate change point of view. But the logistics are insane. How will you manage that?
“It will probably be the largest attempt at relocation in history, and there’s a whole bunch of social factors as well.
“But from a climate risk management perspective it’s a smart idea.”
And if you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that Jakarta isn’t the only city facing the very likely threat of being underwater.
Under the stress of a rapidly growing population and located on a sinking continental shelf, Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria and the second most populous city in Africa, is projected to be entirely underwater in the next 30 years with more than 18 million people at the mercy of flooding, erosion, and food insecurity.
At the same time major US cities like Miami in Florida, New Orleans Louisiana, Houston in Texas and Charleston, South Carolina are no stranger to extreme flooding due to worsening storms and sea level rise. In 2014 the US National Climate Assessment listed Charleston as one of the US. cities most threatened by rising sea level.
Mr Hamden says the US has plenty at their disposal to avoid the worst. “A large resource country can buy their way out of trouble,” said Hamden. “Relocating or investing in heavy infrastructure is inevitable… but it’s high cost and vulnerable infrastructure”.
In response to such an existential threat, cities like Jakarta are planning their relocation. And it’s not the first place to do so.
In 2014 the small island nation of Kiribati purchased the 5500 acre (2475 hectares) Natoavatu Estate to secure a future for its 100,000 people scattered over 32 Pacific atolls threatened by rising sea levels. It is intended as a place for 60,000 or 70,000 people to relocate but the plan for now is that it will be used as a working farm to supply produce to Kiribati (with the help of “technical assistance” from China).
For the past couple of years Vanuatu and other doomed Pacific Island nations have been seeking to take big polluters to international court over climate change. At last year’s UN climate summit COP 26 Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe delivered a speech by video, standing knee-deep in seawater (at a place that used to be dry land) while wearing a suit.
“We’re actually imagining a worst-case scenario where we are forced to relocate or our lands are submerged,” Mr Kofe said.
Planned cities like Australia’s Canberra and Brazil’s capital Brasilia show that relocating major populations is possible and achievable. But it does come at a cost.
The cost of relocating Indonesia’s capital for example comes to an eye-watering US$32 billion. About one-fifth of the cost will come from the government budget, with private sector financiers and state-owned enterprises covering the rest.
Relocation a band-aid solution that can do more harm than good
But critics say that relocating a city is a band-aid solution which doesn’t actually address the root causes of the problem – climate change, overpopulation and poor infrastructure.
“Governments jump to relocate settlements expecting that they can cut disaster losses by just reducing exposure to hazards,” humanitarian engineer from the University of Sydney’s School of Civil Engineering Aaron Opdyke told Al Jazeera.
“We see repeatedly that disasters are often distorted by policy makers for political gain, without truly understanding the drivers of disaster risk. Vulnerabilities of our infrastructure, economies, and social systems often have a much larger role to play in disaster risk creation – factors that are rarely solved by starting anew.”
The new capital will clear swathes of rainforest habitat vital for flora and fauna including endangered orangutans.
“Environmentalists have warned against the potential damage to the region’s ecosystems and rainforests already encroached by oil palm and mining industries’ activities,” Professor Deasy Simandjuntak of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute Singapore said. “All these potential problems would have to be dealt with carefully.”
The move has the potential to forcibly displace Indigenous Paser-Balik people from their lands.
“We will quite possibly be pushed out again from our homes,” Balik cultural leader Jubaen told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age back in 2019 when the plan was announced.
“Our village used to be prosperous, we were rich, food was abundant. That was before the big [forestry] companies entered our area in 1968 [under concessions granted by then dictator Soeharto]. If the capital comes here I don’t know how poor we will be. Our communities will slowly disappear.”
It has also drawn criticism due to the swiftness of approval when compared with legislation aimed at addressing like sexual violence and workers’ rights.
What about the millions who are left behind?
Even after the massive expenditure of moving the Indonesian capital city more than 8.5 million will be left behind, left to the mercy of flooding and rising sea levels in Jakarta. If it’s only the public servants that are relocating, it may ease the burden but the majority of the population will still be left at risk and vast swathes of rainforest will need to be cleared.
“It is a major issue having to manage people living in highly at risk communities in Jakarta.” Mr Hamden told The Fifth Estate.
“In Australia we don’t want to have policies that will leave communities stranded in times of transition, but we are yet to see any policy solutions that address these issues in an equitable manner”.
NGO’s and researchers have for at least a decade been warning of the rising numbers of people displaced by climate change – “climate refugees” are the “forgotten people”.
Hazards caused by extreme weather events, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts and environmental degradation are already forcibly displacing an estimated 20 million people each year, according to the UNHCR.
If the world does not address the risk of rising sea levels and future-proof our sinking cities, Australian think tank IEP estimates that more than 1.2 billion people could be displaced by disasters and weather events by 2050.