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Equity and Environmental Justice: Rising sea levels in Indonesia

The low-income residents of a country, the indigenous population, and people of colour are often unprepared for potential environmental hazards. Moreover, they are a victim of health disparities and disproportionate impacts of environmental crises (Geller, 2016). It is important to deconstruct the underlying mechanisms and elements that generate environmental injustice. In this context, environmental justice seeks to redress these social inequalities.

Human activities around the world have resulted in a surge in greenhouse gases which has further contributed to rising sea levels. The global average sea-level rise is estimated at 3.6 mm annually (The Royal Society, 2020). While the IPCC has reported that the sea levels could rise up to 3.61 feet by the end of this century (Oppenheimer et al., 2019), according to NOAA, it could go up to 8.2 feet (Moore, 2019). The case of Indonesia is the epitome of environmental injustice and misguided policies. Jakarta, the fastest sinking city in the world has been sinking since the 1970s and not much has changed since then.

Indonesia is a beautiful country that is blessed with rich flora and fauna. Jakarta, which is not even half the size of Delhi, accommodates 10 million people. Several of its policies are contributing to environmental hazards and the low-income people suffer the majority of the consequences. One of the most pressing issues is the rising sea levels. This small piece of land is rapidly sinking underwater and is expected to be completely submerged by 2050 (Hidayat, 2018). Environmental hazards are often a result of various human activities all over the world, and to understand the present situation of Indonesia, it is important to examine its origins.

Credits: Canva Pro

Factors responsible for sea-level rise in Indonesia

Indonesia’s history has shaped the present-day infrastructure which is connected to the factors leading to rising sea levels. In the 1600s when the Dutch colonized Indonesia, they replicated Dutch architecture and divided the city with canals. This was meant to facilitate trade, and empower the empire by segregating populations. However, this system soon failed as lack of maintenance led to contaminated water within the canals that further led to the spread of various diseases in the surrounding regions. Instead of treating the canals, the Dutch developed a centralized water pipe system for the affluent regions which was mostly populated by the Dutch. The local population was forced to depend on street vendors or the contaminated canals for water. This water system laid the foundations for the mismanagement of resources.

Even though it has been more than 70 years since the Dutch left Indonesia, less than 50% have access to pipe water and most of the population still depend on underground water. (Thornell, 2021).

Moreover, rapid urban development has reduced the green space that would have helped refill the aquifers underground. In 1965, green space accounted for 35% of Jakarta and by 2008, it came down to 9.3%. These ambitious urban development plans continue as urbanization rate is expected to rise up to 71% by 2030. Such rapid urban development and increasing economic activities have led to increased populations in Jakarta. This population increase in turn puts further pressure on the groundwater source since the growing demand for water is met through groundwater extraction (Abidin et al., 2009). This excessive use of underground water has caused the soil to collapse. The aquifers underground, were meant to be refilled naturally by rainwater. However, rapid development and construction of buildings in the city have affected the rechargeability of these systems as the concrete stops the water from refilling the aquifers. This land subsidence causes rising sea levels. The rural communities in the coastal areas have had to bear the brunt of this crisis because their houses have been constantly washed away. The people living in the city of Jakarta have also raised their land to escape flooding which has put further pressure on the rural population. The land capacity is falling short of accommodating the construction load and the increasing population of Jakarta. Not only is the water supply system ineffective but it is also very expensive. Ever since the water supply has been privatised in Jakarta, the quality and availability of water have further deteriorated. This is due to poor infrastructure and mismanagement of landfills (Scheunpflug, 2020).

While domestic infrastructure and policies have had consequences, sea-level rise can also be attributed to the rising seawater temperatures. The intensity of El Nino and La Nina for Indonesia has also increased over the years. “Coastal waters have warmed during the last century, and are very likely to continue to warm by as much as 4 to 8°F in the 21st century” (IPCC, 2007). Therefore, the consequences of global climate change are incurred by the poor communities living on the sea coasts of Jakarta.

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Environmental disaster management

The government of Jakarta has taken several initiatives to address climate change but they have not had promising results yet. In 2014, it initiated the construction of a concrete sea wall to protect the city. However, the sea wall has also been sinking and water has found its way even through the wall. Therefore, these are not effective solutions since the problem needs to be addressed by first finding solutions for the root causes. The Indonesian government has also announced that considering the rate at which Jakarta is sinking, the capital city needs to shift from Jakarta to Java. Although this could reduce the population strain in Jakarta, it does not address the larger issue of a collapsing environment. Unsustainable growth could have irreversible consequences and lead to economic loss as cities like Jakarta collapse.

The impact of urbanisation on the environment begs the question of whether economic growth and environmental protection can coexist? Environmental consciousness and economic growth are incompatible, however, several initiatives such as climate financing have focused on reducing the costs of a shift towards sustainability.

The Environmental Kuznets’s Curve postulates that environmental pressure increases along with an increase in income up to a certain level and then it begins to drop even if the economy continues to grow. However, this may not necessarily be true as several developed countries are the biggest contributors to global emissions.

While US emissions account for a global share of 15%, Indonesia’s emissions account for 2% (Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions, 2020). Therefore, while Indonesia cannot disregard sustainability in its development projects, developed countries need to incorporate sustainability as well.

Humans often lack the foresight to prepare for future risks and tend to manage disasters only once costs are incurred. People look for immediate gains, leading to inadequate prioritisation of environmental costs. However, while immediate gains might seem more attractive, psychologists have found that a consistent and balanced source of gains has a more positive impact on the human psyche. Taleb (2010) writes in his book “Black Swan”, large amounts of immediate gain will soon saturate the pleasures derived. Regardless, humans tend to work against this theory of ‘positive feeling’. As seen in the case of Indonesia, the solutions are often temporary and do not really mitigate environmental threats.

Indonesia’s rising sea levels and the resulting economic as well as social loss reflect the world’s future if the current trends of economic growth are not reconsidered. Coupled with rapid unsustainable methods of urbanization and ignorance of the root causes of climate change, Jakarta’s air and water quality has been severely affected. These trends call for an urgent call to action as one needs to incorporate sustainable methods of growth by financially supporting developing countries and incentivizing countries to shift to sustainability. Developing countries like Indonesia need to ensure higher standards of living that involve economic, environmental, and social welfare. Therefore, economic growth needs to incorporate sustainable practices to avoid future costs. While Indonesia needs to be accountable for its commercial projects that harm the environment and the indigenous population, the country also suffers the costs of an ignorant world. Developed countries like the US need to be held accountable as well since it is one the biggest contributors to global emissions. Instead of competitiveness in economic growth alone, countries need to generate competitiveness in ensuring sustainability as well. Environmentally conscious economic growth needs to be ensured for sustainable and long-term development.

About the author: Sharon Jose is a graduate in international political economy from King’s College London. Her research interests include political economy of environment and developmental economics.

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