The challenges of littoral megalopolis: Jakarta case

By Martina Maddaluno e Margherita Formisano

As a littoral megalopolis, Jakarta has to face the socio-political challenges that such coastal environment presents. Added to this, there is an even more imminent problem: Indonesia’s still current capital could find itself embodying the mythological Atlantis in the near future and the cause cannot only be found in climate change. What will be the impact on security?

Nowadays, about half of the world’s population lives in cities (exactly 55 per cent). If this seems to be a significant fact, what will the world become when in 2050 the level of urbanisation will reach 68 per cent?[1] 
The world population growth of the next thirty years[2] will be absorbed almost entirely by cities, which means that the 2 billion extra inhabitants that will be there by 2050 will live – almost all of them – in the world’s metropolises or megacities.
A phenomenon of this scale entails lots of negative implications, especially if the Asian megacities is one of the main locations of the aforementioned population growth; this will exacerbate the contradictions that have long been occurring in such urban environments already heavily conditioned by decay, underdevelopment, social tensions, maladministration, and lawlessness. 
Managing these areas is difficult because one spark is enough to start a Nero’s fire and to put national or regional security in danger (after a possible spillover effect). 
Jakarta is a striking example to analyse the critical living conditions that many Asian megacities are facing right now. If they are also coastal, like Indonesia’s still current capital, they are even in double trouble.
The socio-economic dynamics occurring in these coastal environments are in fact more complicated; the coastline is the interface between the sea and the hinterland, so it is affected by the problems and contradictions of these two locations, which are as close as opposite.
Firstly, littoral megacities (like Jakarta) are high criminal risk areas because they are crossing points between the outside and the inside, that is the reason why they are the perfect place for illegal trafficking. Secondly, they are high insurrectional risk areas inasmuch full of different elements like ethnicities, religions and institutions. Lastly, they are high environmental risk areas due to the collateral effects of global warming.
Jakarta is a victim of all this (and more), so it is the case study par excellence to lose yourself into the dynamics and threats that littoral megalopolis – and more specifically those in the Asia-Pacific region – face every day.
In fact, with a population of over 11 million, Jakarta has to struggle against a growing proliferation of informal settlements (slums), against lack of drinking water and adequate sewerage system, against increasingly and frequent floods which linked to the world’s fastest soil subsidence cause Jakarta sinking[3], and in the end against the numerous illegal trafficking of women and children or against some sporadic riots provoked by the socio-political coexistence of different ethnic groups and religions.
Examining each problem which affect the city requires pages and pages of discussion, so the attention will be focused on the most alarming ones because of health, social or environmental urgency. It will be clear that poverty is the lowest common denominator among the three phenomena analysed.

Child trafficking

The problem of the trafficking and exploitation of children for sexual purposes is not a new phenomenon in Indonesia. Some people argue that young girls have been trafficked since the beginning of the era of the Javanese kingdom; their own families (usually of low rank) used to sell them in order to create bonds with royal family and increase their social status. Times have changed but poverty takes a toll not only on children’s bodies but on their souls too. In fact, the traffickers’ favourite victims are poor, uneducated, almost abandoned to themselves, and even today parents agree to sell them for money with no knowledge of their children’s fate. The options are various: exploitation through prostitution, exploitation through slavery, exploitation in factories. One thing is for sure, there is a constant demand for young workers in prostitution both on the island and abroad; Japan and Malaysia are some of the areas which receive these children, being proof of the fact that coastal environment uses maritime communication channels for illegal trafficking.
Looking at statistics there are no reliable data on the number of trafficked children who are forced to offer sexual services in Jakarta (or in Indonesia) because of the illegal nature of the child prostitution market. However, ILO data of 2008[4] shows that more than 180.000 children between the ages of 5 and 17 were sex workers in the entire country, and 80% of working girls in Jakarta’s nightclubs offered sexual services. Another factor to consider is that even if not all of them were deceived, recruited[5], and coerced, they didn’t have a choice because family poverty is not an option.
In conclusion, although the knowledge of data is important to understand the range of the phenomenon of child trafficking and to try to keep it under control, there is no data that render the fate that belongs to these children clear as much as the story narrated by Erma[6].
Erma was a 15-year-old girl, born and raised in West Java, when one day her uncle brought her to Jakarta and sold her to a friend of him. She was told she would work with him as a waitress in a small tea shop but when the job in the shop came to an end, Erma had to spend the other part of her time in the park, not playing but receiving ‘customers’ to pay her pimp, his uncle’s friend. This is how Erma lost her virginity.

The slums

The story of Neng, a 14-year-old girl living in Jakarta is also emblematic to better understand the living conditions of many residents in Jakarta. The young girl lives in one of Jakarta’s poorest and densely populated urban slums, where the sun is hidden by tall buildings so that the light is emanated only from the various hanging neon lamps on the streets.
Neng decided to leave school in order to spend her days in both her family’s food stall and t-shirts factory, in fact she belongs to the percentage of child labour.
Despite the lack of safely managed sanitation and spaces where spend her days as teenagers, Neng feels at home there. And so do the others. They have never lived in a different way and in a different place, so they don’t want to leave because they feel a strong sense of unity and community there. This happens in all slums, even if not all of them are the same; there are crowded slums where a single apartment is shared by more than twenty people, sometimes without any restroom, and there are others where dwellings have several floors with some larger spaces. The Jembatan Besi’s, where Neng lives, belongs to the first category.
Just a few kilometers away from her slum, a huge shopping mall stands. It has a swimming pool and a garden annexed to it. This proves the socioeconomic gap in which the megalopolis pours. There is no reliable data that measures the gap between the richest and the poorest in Jakarta, but one thing is for sure, over the past two decades, this gap has grown in the entire country faster than in any other Southeast Asian nations. Suffice it to say, the four richest men own more wealth than the poorest 100 million people in Indonesia[7]. It is now the sixth country of greatest wealth inequality in the world, in fact, its capital is composed of 50 percent of informal settlements. This means that most people live in pseudo-buildings erected with precarious materials, where the ceiling is no more than six feet high, and the floor is unstable.
So, the status of these slums is miserable, in fact, they don’t have any basic services such as drinking water or electricity, and the situation gets worse after sudden downpours which provoke floods; in 2020 it occurs the worst environmental disaster Indonesia has seen since 2013 with entire villages turned into rivers in flood, capable of dragging trees, cars, dead bodies…
The slum phenomenon began to intensify after Indonesia’s 1945 independence. Thanks to that, Indonesia lived a severe urbanization which caused a housing boom. This is evident in the city of Jakarta that is completely covered with buildings. Some of them are unsafe for people who live there because the decent ones are too expensive. As a result, those who cannot afford them have to live in creepy places.

Sea level rise, floods, subsidence. Jakarta is sinking

Cement. Even the twenty kilometers of wall built in the last three years around the city of Jakarta are made of cement. It is a long barricade that separates the slums from the sea as a result of a desperate attempt to prevent the city’s northern districts sinking. But still Jakarta’s fate seems to be already written. In fact, some specialists argue that 95 per cent of the city coastal part will be submerged by 2050. Why?
First of all, as it is well known, the sea level is rising due to the ices melting, especially Greenland and Antarctic[8] ones, caused by global warming.
Secondly, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture – about 7 percent more per 1°C of warming – which provokes more storms, and it increases the risk of sudden floods. That’s exactly what happens in Jakarta: tens of thousands of people have to leave their homes every year because the overflowed water can reach more than two meters high[9] by making villages unusable.
Thirdly, the phenomenon of soil subsidence contributes to Jakarta sinking because of the gradual water supply from the megacity’s underground. Considering data is essential to better understand the magnitude of the phenomenon; North Jakarta has sunk by 2.5 meters in the past decade, and some areas continue to sink by 25 cm per year, that is more rapidly than other littoral megacities[10].
Subsidence began to affect the city when local government gave permission to extract water from groundwater to all citizens in order to use it for drinking, washing or cooking. Now about three-quarters of Jakarta residents extract too much water from underground, more than local government allowed, causing permanent damage. This happens because the tap water is too much expensive, not always available, and not always drinking.
Unfortunately, stopping the extraction from all aquifers to draw only from other sources (like rainwater, rivers, or water from dams) is impossible, as the specialist Heri Andreas said. According to him, Jakarta megacity’s out of time: it would take about ten years to clean up all rivers, all dams, and all lakes to let people drink their water, and in the meantime the situation could keep worsening.
Surely, the brutal cementing of Jakarta is exacerbating subsidence problem: the numerous capital buildings and constructions weigh a lot on an already precarious ground. This situation linked to the other above-mentioned phenomena is gradually transforming Indonesia’s capital into mythological Atlantis.


There are few places in the world as vulnerable as Jakarta, in fact, the city seems to have no hope of survival because of its geographic location, but also and especially its poverty. In the middle of climate emergency, Indonesia’s still current capital is definitely in danger due to the mere fact of being a coastal environment but if continuous supply from groundwater didn’t occur – in a certain sense justified by the need of cheap drinking water from the poorest part of the Jakarta population – the disaster wouldn’t be so imminent. Indeed, although many coastal cities, such as New York and Shanghai, have been forced by the threat of climate change to build high walls to protect their cities, they don’t find themselves in Jakarta’s bad condition.
Surely, an adequate sewerage system would be a first step to save the city, or at least to postpone the catastrophe. Only two percent of households in central Jakarta are currently connected to the public sewerage system[11], the others have septic tanks which leak wastewater, so they don’t need to be emptied, in fact they flow directly to agricultural fields, rivers, and streets. The repercussions on health and on people’s lives are immense. Indirectly too. In fact, a modern sewerage system could facilitate the water bombs’ draining[12] in such a way as not to provoke floods which engulf the city. Moreover, such a sewerage system could improve the quality of groundwater, by preventing its contamination by means of its mixing with wastewater. This would reduce the high infant mortality rate of Jakarta.
In addition, because of contaminated water, typhoid is one of the most prevalent diseases, and because of the poor hygienic conditions of the hyper-populated slums, the infection spreads super-fast.
The sewerage system plan cannot be the solution to all damages which plague the megacity, but it could be a good start. So, why is not the government taking action?
First of all, such a public work is extremely expensive, and citizens seem unwilling to contribute to finance it due to the lack of a respectable awareness campaign for the purpose of informing people about its benefits. Secondly, based on how much they earn, they couldn’t afford it. Keep in mind the phenomenon of child trafficking: the parents are often the people who sell their children because of economic issues, or the latter decide to prostitute themselves to help family survive in poverty.
In the light of the above, the situation seems to be irreversible to the point that Indonesian parliament adopted the Law which relocated the capital from Jakarta to Nusantara[13]. Jakarta is at the top of the list of largest urban agglomerations that will probably lose conservation challenges. Unfortunately, it will be the entire nation to pay the price. Jakarta people will see their own safety at risk but the whole of Indonesia will be compromised; people will find themselves living in increasingly crowded places due to migration from areas that will become uninhabitable, and with fewer resources. It is well known that under these conditions the risk of insurrection increases. The human national and perhaps international security is threatened.


[2]World Population Prospect 2019, UN, 2019
[3]JAKARTA. Urban Challenges in a Changing Climate. Mayors’ Task Force On Climate Change, Disaster Risk & The Urban Poor, The World Bank, 2010
[4]REPORTAGE Child Labor Around us 2012, AJI, ILO, 2012, p. 37
[5]Keep in mind the definition of trafficking according to the additional protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
[6]Child trafficking for prostitution in Jakarta and West Java: a rapid assessment, ILO, 2004, p.
[12]P. Foradori, G. Giacomello, Sicurezza globale. Le nuove minacce, il Mulino, Bologna, 2014, p. 84

Photo: Floods that cuts the Raya Bintara Rd. on 1st January, 2020