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Jakarta Is Sinking

Now Indonesia is searching for a new capital

THIS WEEK, AMID This week, amid devastating flooding, Indonesia announced it's planning to move its capital out of Jakarta, which really is nothing new—the country’s first president was talking about it way back in 1957. Part of the problem is extreme congestion, but today the city of more than 10 million is facing nothing short of obliteration by rising seas and sinking land, two opposing yet complementary forces of doom. Models predict that by 2050, 95 percent of North Jakarta could be submerged. And Jakarta is far from alone—cities the world over are drowning and sinking, and there’s very little we can do about it short of stopping climate change entirely.

Jakarta is a victim of climate change, the fault of humans the world over (though mostly the fault of corporations), but it’s also a victim of its own policies. The city is sinking—a process known as land subsidence—because residents and industries have been draining aquifers, often illegally, to the point that the land is now collapsing. Think of it like a giant underground water bottle: If you empty too much of it and give it a good squeeze, it’s going to buckle. Accordingly, parts of Jakarta are sinking by as much as 10 inches a year.

That’s destabilizing buildings in the short term—some structures have sunk straight down, enveloping their lower levels in mud—but in the long term it means that about half the city is now beneath sea level. All it takes is one storm surge to inundate a huge chunk of the metropolis: In 2007, for instance, a monsoon left half of Jakarta under as much as 13 feet of water, causing more than half a billion dollars in damage.

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