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The Rise of Climate Refugees in Indonesia

In 2019, the president of Indonesia announced that the capital city would move to a yet-to-be-built city in East Kalimantan. This major change represents just one of the byproducts of rising sea levels in Jakarta. While the relocation was done as a means of relieving burden (heavy traffic, over-population) on Jakarta, residents of North Jakarta are still endangered as their homes continue to sink. Also known as the ‘forgotten victims of climate change’, climate refugees represent people who are subject to a migration due to climate change. This could be a result of natural disasters or weather events worsened by climate change. In this case of climate refugees in Indonesia, specifically, a sinking city.

The fastest sinking city in the world

Jakarta is far from being the only coastal city in the world to face rising sea levels, but it is the fastest sinking city, having sunk 2.5 metres in 10 years. Cities around the world sink as a result of global warming, where the rising global mean sea level causes glaciers to melt. The warming water also adds volume to the ocean, ultimately sinking land. In the case of Jakarta, the sea rises much rapidly due to excess groundwater extraction.

Clean, piped water still isn’t easily accessible for most areas in Jakarta. Thus Jakartans must resort to digging wells and pumping water from aquifers, underground layers of rock that bear groundwater. In the process of groundwater extraction, land subsidence occurs as the rock and soil compacts and the ground above sinks. Unsettlingly, Jakarta’s subsidence rate reaches 17 cm per year. The issue is exacerbated due to rapid urbanisation, which prevents rain from naturally restoring aquifers as Jakarta’s land is buried under concrete.

Waladuna mosque: the product of Jakarta’s sinking, frozen in time

The Muara Baru neighbourhood of North Jakarta endures the worst of the sinking city. Between 1980-2001, the residents were spectators of both the construction of Waladuna Mosque, and its demise as it sank. The area was forced to abandon the mosque as it submerged in knee-deep water and the government built a wall excluding the unsalvageable structure. The mosque is a constant reminder of what will happen to 95% of North Jakarta by 2050 if no action is taken. The looming threat of this occurring in the foreseeable future begs the question ; where will the residents go?

The climate refugees of North Jakarta

On the West Coast of the US, wildfires burn as heat waves graze the land, forcing its residents to evacuate. Those who fled their homes will ultimately return once the weather and land cools, allowing an opportunity to rebuild. This privilege cannot be granted to those in North Jakarta if the land continues to sink, leaving them as climate refugees.

Jakarta is Indonesia’s most populous city, estimated at over 10,000,000 as of 2021. If 95% of North Jakarta’s land submerges in the ocean by 2050, this leaves thousands of people without a home. Since the rest of Jakarta is already overpopulated, the chances of them migrating to other areas of the city without worsening the burden of overpopulation and traffic are unlikely.

According to Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, a researcher who studied climate migration in 30 countries, low-to-middle-income countries are most vulnerable to the threat of increased climate migration in the decades ahead. These countries are often agriculturally dependent, and agriculture is susceptible to climate shocks and disasters. Indonesia, as a lower-middle-income agricultural country, is placed at an extremely vulnerable state. Agricultural activities are endangered by climate disasters, jeopardizing the lives of those who earn income through agriculture, and the lower-middle-income status doesn’t provide the resources the people need to migrate safely. These circumstances endanger the future of Indonesia’s climate refugees.

Indonesia in 2050

The images above illustrate Jakarta’s land subsidence and its prediction through the years. By 2050, if no substantial actions are taken, the entirety of North and Central Jakarta and most of West Jakarta would have between 3-5m of land subsidence.

Jakarta’s sinking isn’t the only environmental threat in Indonesia. At least 173 forest fires have emerged in 10 provinces. In Riau alone, 657 hectares of land burned down in early March of 2021.

The heavy rainy season of June - July 2021 has subjected areas in the Java and Sumatran islands to floods and landslides. In the Sijunjung regency of West Sumatra, 600 people and 227 homes were damaged due to floods.

Climate change will only worsen the effects of these natural disasters in the decades ahead. More and more climate refugees will emerge, and it is still unclear of where they will be able to safely migrate to.

What can be done

Years ago, water specialists from the Netherlands wrote a 12-page paper about sinking cities in the world. Jakarta, along with Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, are high on the list as the fastest sinking cities. The paper proposed 10 solutions, among them are: restriction of groundwater extraction, natural and artificial recharge of aquifers, development of alternative water supply (instead of groundwater) and improving governance and decision-making.

In the case of Jakarta’s sinking, it’s clear that groundwater extraction is the main culprit. The severity of the issue is caused by lax regulation. Anyone is allowed to carry out their own groundwater extraction, and over the years it has been done far more than allowed. In May of 2018, Jakarta city authorities discovered 56 of 80 buildings had their own groundwater pump in Central Jakarta’s Jl. Thamrin, 33 of which were done illegally.

The only solution is evident: to rely on other sources for clean water. Unless groundwater extraction is halted or increased in regulation, land subsidence will ultimately sink Jakarta. Most crucially, communities across Indonesia will disintegrate throughout the rise of climate refugees as more land is lost to climate change.


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