- Cars once drove along the road in front of residents’ homes in coastal Timbulsloko village on the northern coast of Indonesia’s Java Island. Now, only canoes can pass; when the tide recedes, the water is knee-deep.
- Timbulsloko experiences severe tidal flooding caused by land subsidence, abrasion, nearby major construction, and climate change.
- Residents are starting to respond: A network of interlocking boardwalks now connects the submerged hamlets to dry land, and the village has designated a protected coastal area and prohibited the clearing of mangroves.
- The goal is to prevent further coastal damage and ensure the safety of residents’ settlements. The community is also beginning to discuss sustainable aquaculture.
TIMBULSLOKO, Indonesia — For Kartimah, traveling to the doctor’s office for her regular checkups is no longer such a simple journey.
The trip used to be a short hop by scooter. But now, the elderly woman must take a boat to higher ground before she can begin to travel by land.
Today, she wishes for one thing: “A dry road, like before.”
Kartimah lives in Timbulsloko, some 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the north coast of Indonesia’s Java Island.
Forty years ago, the hamlet was surrounded by rice paddies. But the last of these was submerged by tidal floodwaters in 2016. So were the roads linking the community with other settlements.
Many residents, around a third of the hamlet’s 120 families, chose to move away.
Those who stayed — because relocation was expensive, they didn’t want to face new uncertainties, or Timbulsloko was their home — have had to adapt to the watery conditions.
Timbulsloko’s transformation from an agricultural hub into a waterworld of boardwalks and canoes is attributable to several factors. Some, like climate change, which is causing ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise, are beyond residents’ control.
Others, like the destruction of mangrove swamps to make way for fish farms, were their own doing.
“In the past, this village was very prosperous,” Shobirin, a community leader, told Mongabay Indonesia at his home in Timbulsloko hamlet.
“There were many coconut palms. In front and in back of this house, it was all coconuts, including in the neighbors’ land,” he said. “Chili plants grew on the embankments of the rice fields.”
Timbulsloko is one of four hamlets in the village of the same name. Most of the 3,710 inhabitants of Timbulsloko village, including in the hamlets of Bogorame, Wonorejo and Karanggeneng, are fishers and factory workers, according to 2019 data.
“Of the four hamlets, this one is the worst affected,” Shobirin said. “The other three still have road access. Trucks can enter to carry building materials, but they can’t make it here.”
Timbulsloko is one of several communities in northern Java to be inundated by tidal flooding. In many cases, the clear-cutting of mangroves for fish farming has played a central role.
Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago country, is home to around 20% of the world’s mangroves, a type of tree that grows in coastal swamps. But over the past century, Java has lost some 70% of its mangroves, with around half of that due to clearance for shrimp and fish farming.
Timbulsloko’s inundation has also been facilitated by the subsidence, or sinking, of land in the village due to excessive groundwater extraction, and construction in the nearby city of Semarang, which has increased the strength of ocean currents, thereby eroding retaining walls.
Locals feel the impact of the rising floodwaters day by day. The tide arrives in the morning and evening, along with the departure and return of residents who work in factories, shops or on building projects. To keep their shoes dry, schoolchildren go barefoot, their shoes in hand, while those going to work must bring a change of clothes.
“In the past, if the tide was low on Friday night, it would remain so until Sunday morning, and motorbikes could still pass. Now they can’t,” said Ma’ruf, a Timbulsloko resident born in 1992. He has not seen dry land in the village since childhood.
The hamlets closest to the coast, Bogorame and Wonorejo, are also impacted by the floodwaters. In 1980, half of Bogorame was rice fields. A decade later the fields had been converted to ponds that were gradually damaged by abrasion, leaving only a small amount of dry land for settlements in the middle of the hamlet.
As well as damaging roads and bridges, the floodwaters caused the loss of dozens of houses in Bogorame and Wonorejo. In Timbulsloko, several houses that are no longer suitable for habitation remain empty. Farthest from the coastline, Karanggeneng, home to the village’s community hall and local authority office, is only slightly affected.
In 1972, the northern coast of Java that passed through Timbulsloko was fairly straight from the northeast to the southwest.
By 2007, the coastline had begun encroaching on the mainland, but was still quite a distance from settlements. Two years later, the coast, by then an irregular line, was much further inland, devouring most of the remaining ponds and rice fields. By 2013, it was even further inland, encroaching on mangrove areas and settlements.
Starting to adapt
To stem the tide, the village has prohibited the clearance of mangroves. Violators are fined and required to plant 100 mangrove seedlings.
A protected coastal area has been divided into mangroves, rehabilitation, no-fishing, and limited-fishing sections. The goal is to protect the coast from further damage and ensure the safety of residents’ settlements. The community is beginning to discuss sustainable aquaculture.
The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries has designated Timbulsloko as the site for the Tangguh Coastal Village Development program. In 2013, in collaboration with Wetlands International, an NGO, it built a hybrid engineering structure in Bogorame and Wonorejo that imitates mangrove roots to capture sediment. Eventually, mangroves will regrow naturally.
Compared to breakwaters and retaining walls, this type of structure is considered more effective as it can withstand abrasion and capture sediment, following the dynamics of the tides.
On a personal level, residents have had to raise the floor of their homes in response to the rising waters. Shobirin has raised his three times; twice using sandstone, then with wood. The floors go up by nearly a meter (3 feet) every five years.
Residents have also constructed boardwalks from meter-wide wooden slats that stretch up to 1.5 kilometers long, or nearly a mile. The boardwalks have restored the community atmosphere of Timbulsloko; children run along them laughing, while residents sit on chairs and chat while waiting for dusk.
“There is a big difference between before and after the bridge,” Shobirin said. “In the past, after Isya, the last prayer of the day, no one came out, let alone children. They would just be at home, watching TV. Now, even at 10 p.m., there are still kids running around. In the past, when there were no floodwaters, the atmosphere was like this.”
“I salute the residents of Timbulsloko who were able to build boardwalks to access the lifeblood of the village without government assistance,” said Masnuah, secretary-general of the Sisterhood of Indonesian Fisherwomen (PPNI), who initiated the Humanitarian Solidarity for Timbulsloko campaign to raise funds for the boardwalks’ construction.
It was also supported by an Islamic charity, various fisherwomen’s associations, and paralegal foundations.
The PPNI has also urged the government to pay more attention to coastal communities by classifying tidal flooding as a disaster, so affected populations can receive the assistance they need.
“The state has not been present amid an environmental crisis caused by development policies that do not favor the affected communities,” Masnuah said. “The government has not considered the tidal flooding as a disaster. Abrasion and climate change are increasingly eroding the lives of coastal communities.”
According to Indonesia’s 2007 Disaster Management Law, natural disasters include earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts, hurricanes, and landslides.
Masnuah said she would continue to support a better life for the residents of Timbulsloko. The Humanitarian Solidarity for Timbulsloko campaign was borne out of concern for vulnerable groups, including coastal villages affected by abrasion and climate disasters. “Hopefully this will be a good start to attract more attention as soon as possible from the government to restore coastal villages that have sunk due to abrasion,” she said.
Masnuah said significant support is needed to assist the residents of Timbulsloko hamlet adapt to the current conditions.
“Because Timbulsloko has already sunk, residents cannot wait for the government to intervene,” she said. “They must continue to adapt to the environment.”
Banner image: Tidal floodwaters engulf Timbulsloko village. Image by Nuswantoro/Mongabay Indonesia.