Picture of man pushing a wheelbarrow fully load with soil through the front entrance of his home.

Their homes are sinking fast. Can their community survive?

As the north coast of Java, Indonesia, fades away, residents struggle to keep their town—and their history—from the same fate.

Hanging on is hard in Demak Regency in Central Java. After a high tide flooded the village of Purwosari for the first time in 2020, Turadi used soil to raise his floor. The coast here is subsiding up to four inches a year, partly because of groundwater pumping.

To bury Mukminah last year, they had to bring in the dirt by rowboat. The cemetery was underwater in Timbulsloko, a village some 250 miles east of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. On maps the village looks like it’s still on the north coast of Central Java, but the land around it has lately been taken by the Java Sea. The cemetery, a few hundred yards outside the village, had been submerged even at low tide since 2020. There was a dead tree in the middle of it, surrounded by dozens of headstones sticking out of the water.

Mukminah was in her early 70s when she died. She would have remembered, as surviving elders do well, how green and prosperous their village once was. Paddy fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Villagers grew coconuts, red onions, chilies, cabbages, carrots, potatoes.

“Whatever seeds you threw to the ground, they would grow,” recalls Ashar, the village leader. He’s lean and muscular—and only 39—but he too remembers the better days. The water has come on fast in just the past two decades.

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