Heading north from the city centre to the coastline, Jakarta seems to be collapsing in slow motion. The Indonesian capital sprawls, its black-glass business district giving way to a low-rise hinterland where the bones of the city jut out; long spines of pale concrete pillars bearing kilometres of knotted overpasses and raised highways. In their shadows are industrial estates in various states of abandonment, stalled construction sites already succumbing to the creep of tropical foliage, sluggish waterways clotted with litter, and thousands upon thousands of houses, from clusters of bare-iron shacks to landed three-storey homes, none the same as its neighbour.
The chaos runs all the way to the seafront, where waterparks, glossy malls and luxury condos jostle for space with container ports and fishing docks crammed so tight with small boats that from above they look like tangles of rusted wire snagged on the shore.
Some of these docks are now hemmed in by giant walls. At Cilincing – a northeastern suburb of the city made up of scattered fishing communities and industrial ports – five-metre-high concrete pillars have been dropped into the shoreline, supporting a sloping buttress that blocks all view of the sea from the land. Less than 50 metres behind it on the landward side is another wall, constructed less than a decade ago, that is now redundant; between them, fishermen use a placid inlet to tie up and maintain their boats.
Twenty kilometres of sea walls have been thrown up around Jakarta Bay in the past three years, along with many more reinforcements along river banks, the first phase of a desperate attempt to fortify the city’s waterlogged northern districts.
Jakarta, a megacity of 30 million people, is sinking. In places along the coastline the ground has subsided by four metres over the last few decades, meaning that the concrete barricades are the only thing preventing whole communities from being engulfed by the sea.