How Small Numbers Relocate a Megacity?


Sometimes, numbers can be so insufficient in representing the harsh reality they imply. Like, when you read that on average the sea levels are rising by 3.2mm per year[1]. 3.2mm, that’s the height of a fruit fly. How can this matter? How can this even deserve an article? Well, it does, because right now, a nation of more than 270 million people is planning to relocate its capital. Because this capital is sinking. And because the rising sea levels now massively add on.

The city Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, has been announced to be the fastest-sinking city in the world. This city of ten million people (almost the population of Sweden) has been built on swampy land. Now, it is slowly but surely going down, partly because of uncontrolled groundwater extraction. Because piped water isn’t available in most areas, the people of Jakarta have no choice but to pump out the groundwater for their daily uses. Parts of the city sink at a rate of 25cm per year. Jakarta has experienced regular floods for a long time, but now the sea around it, the Java Sea, is rising, exacerbating the effect of the sinking land [2]. By 2050, when those tiny 3.2mm per year have had a long time to add up, sea levels might well be 30cm higher[3].

Källa: AI

The government of Indonesia announced in 2019, that the capital of the country will be relocated. The new capital city, Nusantara, will be built (yes, it will be a newly constructed city) to the province East Kalimantan on Borneo Island, 1300km away[4]. Again, a number that doesn’t really tell us anything. Certainly, 1300km sounds like a lot, or does it? If Sweden was to relocate its capital, it couldn’t go far enough within its borders to reach 1300km from Stockholm. It would have to move to the most northern point of Scandinavia to get to that number. Feels pretty huge now, huh?

As for Indonesia, the move to a new capital will cost a sum that converts to more than 400 billion Swedish Kronor[5]. And it means that an area with a lot of unique wildlife and rainforests left will be changed completely in the process of building a new megacity like Jakarta.

Källa: Google Maps

But why are the sea levels rising? The earth has been warming for about a degree since the end of the 1800s. Most of the warming happened since about 1980[6] and it will continue to get hotter at an accelerating rate. Alright, one degree. Again, this number just doesn’t do justice to all the changes it brings with it. The water of the earth’s oceans has absorbed a lot of the warmth. Water expands when it heats up, causing the sea levels to rise. Melting glaciers and ice sheets further add on to this and scientists expect the sea levels to rise more quickly in the future than they are doing now. This will affect coastal cities and entire islands around the globe. It already puts 250 million people at risk of experiencing regular flooding[7].

The story of Jakarta shows how much the smallest numbers can matter. It shows that the tiniest change in a sensitive system can kick it right out of balance. Suddenly, the height of a fruit fly can translate to 1300km or 400 billion Kronor and to millions of lives forever changed.

Lisa de Vries

[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/sea-level-rise-1

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44636934

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/sea-level-rise-1

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-60037163

[5] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-60037163

[6] https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature

[7] Kulp, S.A., Strauss, B.H. New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding. Nat Commun 10, 4844 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12808-z

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