Sinking Cities in Asia: Science-Based Adaptations Are Needed
Jakarta is built on swampland and is the fastest sinking city on earth. (Photo: Getty Images)
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Sinking Cities in Asia: Science-Based Adaptations Are Needed

Sep. 06, 2019  |     |  0 comments

August is a busy month for climate change watchers in Southeast Asia. The most developed regional country, Singapore and the most populous country, Indonesia, announced two contrasting approaches to adapt to the risk of sea-level rise caused by global climate change. While most people often associate climate change with global warming and extreme weather calamities, the lurking danger of sea-level rise is now recognized as an equally important climate change hazard.


On August 18, 2019, Singapore announced that it is taking climate change as a threat to the country’s existence. It plans to spend as much as SGD 100 billion (USD 72 billion) over the next 100 years to tackle the threat posed by the challenge of rising sea levels and extreme weather. The island state set up an SGD 10 million National Sea Level Program at the Center for Climate Research Singapore (CCRS). The new program will try to improve understanding of physical processes affecting sea-level rise, better study how an increase in sea levels could impact the island and plan on mitigation and adaptation measures decades ahead of the natural phenomenon occurring.


The small island state is already experiencing some of the effects of climate change in recent years, including more intense rainfall and prolonged dry spells. All evidence point to the continuing rises of global and local temperatures. The country is expecting more extreme and severe weather that would threaten water and food supply.


The island state has been investing heavily in weather-related research through the CCRS in recent years. There is a team of scientists and meteorologists using super computers to model the weather and to conduct research on adverse climate phenomenon. Projects such as protecting coasts and improving flood resilience have been ongoing since 2011. Detail satellite mapping of areas with a higher risk of flooding is now available and strategies to defend the vulnerable eastern coast from a rise in sea level such as building polders and reclaiming a series of islands along the southern seafront Marina East to the airport in Changi is now in place. Singapore is the most prepared country in Southeast Asia in tackling this challenging issue of climate change.


The biggest country in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, worked on a different plan to face the climate change challenge. On August 26, it announced the plan to move the capital of the country from Jakarta to the eastern edge of jungle-clad Borneo island in an area near the regional cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. The new location is almost 2,000 kilometers away from Jakarta. It is situated in the geographic center of the country and geologically an area of “minimal” risk of natural disasters such as earthquake, volcano eruption, floods, and sea-level rise.


Jakarta has been the center of modern Indonesia since the early 1600s. The city has a population of 10 million with a land area of 661 square kilometers in the mid-2010s. Including the surrounding area, the Jakarta metropolitan area has a population of more than 30 million and a total land area of 6,390 square kilometers, second only to Tokyo Bay’s 40 million and counted as the second largest metropolitan city in the world.


Jakarta is built on swampland and is the fastest sinking city on earth based on the current rate of land subsidence per year in which some area is sinking as much as 25 centimeters per year. There is an estimate that 40 percent of the city now lies below the current sea level. An often quoted report estimates that one third of the city and 95 percent of the low-lying coastal North Jakarta area will be submerged by 2050 if current subsidence rate continues and no effective mitigation measures adopted.

Many weather research had identified Southeast Asia and South Asia as among the highest risk areas in sea-level rise. The extensive flooding of Bangkok in 2011 also demonstrated its vulnerability in the future.

The Indonesia government planned to spend IDR 466 trillion (USD 33 billion) in the next decade to move the capital out of Jakarta. The master plan of the new capital city is already in place, and legislation is being rushed through Parliament. The construction of the new city is set to begin in 2020, and some 1.5 million civil servants will move to the new capital starting in 2024. Indonesia is not the first Southeast Asian country to move its capital. Malaysia moved its administrative capital from Kuala Lumpur to Putrajaya in 1999 and Myanmar moved its capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2006. However, the shift of capital in Myanmar and Malaysia were of congestion and other urban ills, and only the Indonesian move is precipitated by climate change.


The move of the capital away from Jakarta has immediately generated some scepticism, foremost of which is the funding for the transfer. The government announced that it would provide 20 percent of the required budget and the 80 percent balance will come from private investment and government assets management such as property sales of vacant government facilities in Jakarta and the new capital city. The high percentage of funding from uncertain property sales and the tight schedule envisioned in the capital city transfer present some uncertainties on the smooth implementation of the project. It is generally expected the final cost tab on the capital transfer will be higher than the budgeted amount.


In comparing the mitigation and adaptation approach of Singapore and the retreat from the threat transfer capital approach of Indonesia, the immediate cost to the economy is much more manageable in the mitigation and adaptation approach. The annualized spending of Singapore in the next decade is around SGD 1 billion (USD 720 million) per annum assuming mitigation measure starts immediately or 0.2 percent of annual GDP. It is much less than the cost of Indonesia of USD 3.3 billion per year or 0.4 percent of annual GDP. The certainty of protecting an existing asset is much better in the mitigation and adaptation approach than the retreat from threat approach.  


The Indonesian choice is a result of a delay in addressing the issue. As early as 1957, there was already plans to move the capital due to subsidence and flood problems. The accelerating urbanization, in combination with the unexpected sea-level rise, makes the capital transfer an unavoidable choice to many people today.  


The value of early action on the sea-level rise is clear from the Singapore and Indonesia case. The general approach to tackle climate change is to understand the issue, take measures to mitigate it and adapt to it. The first step relies on modern science, particularly on satellite-based remote sensing of coastline change, sea-level change data and supercomputer-based weather model. These data provide a scientific basis for proper mediation and adaptation measures.


The actions of Singapore and Indonesia are wake up calls that the challenge of sea-rise are much closer to our doors. Many weather research had identified Southeast Asia and South Asia as among the highest risk areas in sea-level rise. The extensive flooding of Bangkok in 2011 also demonstrated its vulnerability in the future. In the case of South Asia, Krishna (India), Ganges-Brahmaputra (Bangladesh), and Brahmani (India) deltas are identified as highly vulnerable areas in the rise of sea-level. 


Southeast Asia and South Asia countries should beef up its understanding of the science, get real-life meteorological and ocean data by cooperating with weather and ocean study powerhouses such as the US and China. These two countries lead in the weather satellite, remote sensing and weather modelling technologies.   


We cannot adequately address the climate change challenges unless we understand the science behind the problems, after learning what is going to happen and where they will happen, we can then mitigate and adapt to the challenges.