A fisherman walks across a road flooded by seawater in Jakarta, Indonesia, in April 2013. Home to more than ten million people, Jakarta is the capital and largest city of a sprawling island nation. Today the city faces significant threats from flooding, sinking land, rising sea levels, and climate change.

Rising Waters

A fisherman walks across a road flooded by seawater in Jakarta, Indonesia, in April 2013. Home to more than ten million people, Jakarta is the capital and largest city of a sprawling island nation. Today the city faces significant threats from flooding, sinking land, rising sea levels, and climate change.
Photograph by Sean Gallagher

Pictures Reveal Hardship in the World’s Fastest Sinking City

Jakarta, Indonesia, is sinking below sea level, thanks to a perfect storm of illegal water pumping, rising water, and climate change.

Beijing-based photographer Sean Gallagher traveled to Jakarta to report on these challenges. The city has long faced serious floods, including a deluge in 2007 that killed 50 people and displaced 300,000. But the problem seems to be getting worse, said Gallagher.

In fact, the problem has progressed since we first published this photo essay. A New York Times special report published December 21, 2017brought new attention to this problem.

"In fact, Jakarta is sinking faster than any other big city on the planet, faster, even, than climate change is causing the sea to rise—so surreally fast that rivers sometimes flow upstream, ordinary rains regularly swamp neighborhoods and buildings slowly disappear underground, swallowed by the earth," the Times wrote. "The main cause: Jakartans are digging illegal wells, drip by drip draining the underground aquifers on which the city rests — like deflating a giant cushion underneath it."

Gallagher had said in 2013: "Jakarta is increasingly being ravaged by floods that are exacerbated by a number of factors, including rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and the fact that the city is sinking up to 30 centimeters [12 inches] per year."

"Forty percent of the city is below sea level," he added, "and the city's dilapidated canal system is choked with severe pollution."

The situation has only worsened since Gallagher visited to document the problems.

This story was first published on July 25, 2013, and updated with new information on December 22, 2017.

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