Sinking shoreline threatens coastal communities in Indonesia

MUARA GEMBONG, Indonesia (Reuters) - Nur Anisa Rahmadani has to wade through shin-deep seawater to get to her primary school in Pantai Bahagia village on the north coast of Indonesia’s Java island.

Almost every day, the sea, which used to lap the shore a few kilometers away, floods her schoolyard and classrooms – clear evidence of the threat that Java's sinking coastline poses to millions of people. (Click to see a picture package about Indonesia's sinking coastline)

Experts say Pantai Bahagia, or “Happy Beach”, 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.

“On the one hand, we face climate change that causes sea levels to rise,” said I Nyoman Suryadiputra, director of the Wetlands International Indonesia conservation group.

At the same time, he said, the extraction of groundwater for use in big cities like the capital, Jakarta, is causing the subsidence of land along the coast.

Roughly 40 percent of Jakarta is below sea level and a new sea wall has had to be built in a bid to hold back the waves.

Still, large areas in the north of the city are regularly inundated, forcing businesses to pile up sandbags for protection while food stalls feed the hungry with water sloshing around their feet.

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Hundreds of kilometers to the east, in the seaside town of Demak, residents prop up their fridges and televisions on concrete blocks to keep them out of the murky water that flows into their homes during high tides.

Some have simply abandoned their homes as the sea creeps closer.


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

It is also home to more than a fifth of the world’s mangrove forests, which naturally help keep the tides out. But only 3 million hectares of mangroves remain, down from nearly double that three decades ago, according to Wetlands International.

For years, coastal communities have chopped down the mangrove forests to clear the way for fish and shrimp farms, and for rice fields.

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In some places, hundreds of meters of coast that used to be lined with mangroves have now been swallowed up by the sea.

The government has scrambled to work with environmental groups to replant mangroves, build dykes and relocate some people.

But many residents, mostly poor fishermen and vendors, are either reluctant to leave their old family homes or simply have nowhere to go further inland on crowded Java.

“I hope to be able to move, but my family has lived here for decades. Where can I go?” said Udin, a 30-year old fisherman in Pantai Bahagia, 90 km (56 miles) east of Jakarta.

Udin said he has had to raise his wooden house higher on its stilts twice in recent years. Nearby, the tides are slowly claiming the village mosque and cemetery.

“Only some of us are aware of the benefits of mangroves. There needs to be more collective responsibility,” Udin said.

Despite the nearly daily flood at her school, 10-year old Rahmadani and her classmates are undeterred.

“I stay in school and keep up my spirits up because I want to pursue my ambition of being a lecturer,” she said.

Additional reporting by Zahra Matarani; Editing by Karishma Singh, Robert Birsel