Time is running out for Indonesian fishing village as it battles coastal erosion

BETING, WEST JAVA (CNA) – With a watchful eye, Sanusi scanned the water in front of him as he drove his wooden boat along an unnamed narrow offshoot of West Java’s Citarum River.

The tide is low, revealing mangrove tree roots jutting out of the water, binding themselves to the loose and slowly eroding mud along the riverbank.

Sanusi slowed his boat as he neared his village Beting, not wanting the propellers attached to his boat to catch the many tree trunks and garbage in the water.

As the boat crawled further downstream, houses in various stages of decay started to reveal themselves.

Although some remained occupied, the majority of the houses were abandoned, with their walls infested by mould and fungi while their wooden doors rotted away. Some stood lopsided while others were reduced to rubble.

The houses were surrounded by pools of mud and water left behind by a recent tidal flood which completely inundated Sanusi’s Beting village in the northern coast of Java, some 40km northeast of Jakarta.

The tidal flood hits Beting twice a month, at full and new moons. During those periods, the sea swells because of the gravitational force of the moon and drowns the entire village in water up to 1m deep.

The water, Sanusi said, sometimes linger for seven days.

ABOVE & BELOW: At least 6,000 hectares of fish farms and residential areas in Beting village, Bekasi regency, West Java have been lost since 2008 due to abrasion; and a woman and a child stand on the porch of their inundated home, drowned by the frequent tidal floods which hit Beting village. PHOTOS: CNA

“I fear that one day this village will become one with the sea,” the 50-year-old fisherman told CNA.

It has not always been like this, Sanusi said. The village was once a productive fish farming area and home to 600 families.

But for the past 11 years, the sea encroached more than 6,000ha of fish ponds and residential areas in Beting and climate change, which resulted in rising sea level, stronger winds and bigger waves, has exacerbated the problem. Waves lapping on the shores carry away with them soils along the coast.

Today, only 100 families remain in Beting village, battling the fortnightly tidal floods which also inundate schools, mosques and the potholed road which serves as the village’s only land access to the outside world.

The erosion has become so severe that tidal floods have reached houses which sit as far away as 4km from where the coastline used to be.

And the habitable area is confined to a strip of land along a small river, sandwiched by eroding fish ponds on either sides.

DOLLAR VILLAGE NO MORE

Sukara, who also has one name, said his family used to employ 10 people to work on their fish farm, producing tonnes of milkfish and prawns every three months.

The fish farms in Beting village were so productive that farmers there became the main suppliers of fish sold in North Jakarta, a one-and-a-half hour boat ride away.

Buyers and brokers with their eight-tonne capacity boats would come to Beting at least three times a day to haul in their fish. The farmers could easily earn USD10,000 every three to four months during harvest seasons.

“The economy here thrived so much that they nicknamed this village the ‘dollar kampong’. People flocked here looking to work at fish farms or start their own,” the 37-year-old told CNA.

But that changed in 2008 when the sea started to creep in and flooded the fish farms.

“It happened so quickly. Every lunar tide there would be one or two more fish farms which became one with the sea,” Sukara said, adding that the sea finally devastated his own pond in 2010.

Sukara lost hundreds of millions of rupiah in fish harvest and property damage when the erosion hit his fish farm, but more worryingly, the erosion cost him his livelihood.

“Now, we don’t have a steady income. We’d be lucky if we can put food on our table,” he bemoaned.

Like so many in Beting village, Sukara went from being a wealthy fish farm owner to a poor fisherman who makes IDR40,000 to IDR100,000 a day catching fish, clams and squids from the Java Sea.

To make matters worse, the sea is heavily polluted by trash and chemical waste from nearby Jakarta and the neighbouring industrial town of Bekasi.

Another former fish farm owner, Ahmad Payumi said life has become very hard for residents of Beting after the abrasion.

“People have been farming fish in Beting since the 1960s. Farming fish is our only source of income and for many people it’s the only thing they know how to do,” the 49-year-old told CNA.

Payumi said the only options for people of Beting are to become a fisherman or work as a labourer somewhere else. Some people have even decided to be trash pickers at a landfill 70km south of the village.

“We don’t have degrees and diplomas. We can’t land a more decent job,” he said, adding that he stayed in Beting and become a fisherman because he has no choice.

“I wish I could cut my losses, sell my properties and move elsewhere to start another fish farm, but no one wants to buy a piece of land which is eroding,” he said.

AGGRAVATED BY CLIMATE CHANGE

The erosion which occurred in Beting is not unique.

In Central Java’s Demak regency, coastal abrasion has turned 3,200ha of residential and farming areas into a wasteland for the last 20 years, displacing thousands of people and leaving at least three villages under water.

In fact, throughout the northern coast of Java, there are numerous areas with alarming coastal abrasion rates dotting the 1,100km coastline, although none are as bad as Demak and Beting.

Scientists said the northern coast of Java is more prone to erosion than other areas in Indonesia.

The land there is low lying and made up of mostly compacted mud formed through millenniums of sediment pile up, scientists told CNA, making it more susceptible to erosion.

The coastline also sits directly in the path of the west monsoon winds, which travels from mainland Asia to Australia between November and March, bringing with it big and strong waves as it enters the shallow Java Sea.

While coastal abrasion is a natural phenomenon which has been going on for millions of years in Java, today the process is aggravated because of climate change.

“Because of climate change, the weather pattern is changing. Winds which were normally moderate are becoming extreme and in turn, waves are becoming stronger,” Researcher at the government’s Geospatial Information Agency Ratna Sari Dewi told CNA.

But while erosion is happening throughout Java, Beting and Demak are seeing exceptionally massive erosion rate due to the fact that they are located near two of Indonesia’s most populated cities: Jakarta and Semarang.

The two cities are battling land subsidence due to the overuse of groundwater and in a bid to save their coastal areas from sinking, the cities have erected dikes, embankments and seawalls.

“These structures change the sea current patterns,” oceanography expert from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences Adi Purwandani told CNA.

“Jakarta sits in a bay which decelerates the current. If Jakarta erects a seawall, the sea current flowing to (Beting) will be stronger and the coastal abrasion rate there will be even faster.”

BATTLE TO SAVE THE VILLAGE

Despite the threat it would pose to villages like Beting, the Ministry of Public Works is pressing ahead with plans to erect a 32km giant seawall to protect Jakarta and its 9.6 million inhabitants.

Jakarta has a subsidence rate of 1.15cm a year, with some parts of the city sinking as much as 25cm annually and experts predicted that 95 per cent of Jakarta’s coastal areas could be entirely submerged below sea level by 2050.

The entire project is scheduled to be completed by 2030.

With Jakarta bent on saving itself from sinking by erecting a giant seawall, Dewi said the odds are against small fishing communities like Beting.

“The most vulnerable places are not cities like Jakarta, but villages like (Beting). They don’t have the money to erect dikes and they cannot afford to move,” she said.

Muslim, the secretary of Muara Gembong district, where Beting is located, told CNA the district government lacks the money to build dikes and has repeatedly asked the central government for help.

“The central government has not responded to our request,” Muslim, who also goes with one name, told CNA.

But villager Sonhaji, who only has one name as well, said some residents are not giving up.

“We don’t want to leave so easily. This is our community. This is our home,” the 35-year-old said.

Sonhaji said residents tried to save their homes and everything inside by erecting perimeter walls and raising their floors. Some had even built wooden houses on bamboo stilts next to the skeletons of their original homes.

Villagers in Beting also referred to the lunar calendar which they find more useful to predict the tidal floods. “By adopting the lunar calendar, we know when to be ready,” he said.

But Sonhaji felt that these efforts are band-aid solutions and believed more should be done to solve the underlying problem of coastal abrasion.

In 2013, Sonhaji and a number of residents began searching for mangrove seeds. “It was hard to find the seeds, because all of the mangrove trees in Beting had been cut down to make way for the fish farms,” he said.

“We talked to other communities who still have mangrove trees. We learned how to plant and cultivate them.”

Sonhaji even reached out to corporate donors and individual philanthropists to finance the buying and planting of mangrove seeds. But Sonhaji is struggling to get the whole village involved. “All the villagers care about is whether these mangroves can bring back the fishes. It might not be the case just yet, but if we built an ecosystem of mangrove trees they might,” he said.

Seven years since Sonhaji’s efforts began, more than 300,000 mangrove trees have been planted.

“Thanks to the mangroves, waves from the sea don’t directly hit our home. The mangroves slow down the erosion rate although they cannot stop it completely,” he said.

The planted trees only covered around one eighth of the affected areas and Sonhaji estimated that the village would need millions more to completely stop the abrasion.

And with climate change and the building of a giant seawall in nearby Jakarta it has become a race against time.

“I believe we can still save our village,” he said.