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A man standing beside the broken parapet wall
Pekalongan, Indonesia

Batik Makers Face Worsening Tidal Floods in Pekalongan, Indonesia

A wide piece of white cloth covers the lower half Kartini, a 67-year-old who is sitting on a low wooden chair in her three-by-three meter living room in the Degayu ward of Pekalongan, a city on the northern coast of Central Java, Indonesia. She is entirely focused on tracing a design on the cloth with a peculiar utensil that oozes hot wax.

Canting, as it is called, is a pen with a small container filled with molten wax. Kartini carefully follows the pencil lines on the cloth and then fills a dragon depiction with dots to make its scale look lively.

”This needs patience and must be done carefully," she says while blowing on the newly traced pattern to dry it quicker. Her right hand, holding the pen, dips into a small container sitting on a small stove, filling the pen with wax.

Together with her daughter Faizyah, Kartini usually applies wax to cloth in the evenings as there are no distractions.

“Evenings are calmer, with fewer disturbances. It is easier to work then,” she says.

Batik-making can be found in every corner and alley in Pekalongan. People drying batik cloth in their front yards is a common sight.

The official webpage of the Pekalongan City Administration says batik production is one of the city’s economic engines. It is also the reason why Pekalongan is known as the City of Batik.

The Pekalongan City Trade, Cooperative, and SME office say that the batik industry contributed 37% of the city’s exports in 2021, or 26% up from exports in 2020.

Demand for batik has never subsided and the two women have almost no respite. They continue to produce batiks even when Degayu, the city’s northernmost ward, is frequently visited by a long-time guest—the tidal flood.

Satellite image showing eroded shoreline
The 2021 satellite image shows the eroded shoreline and seawater that has soaked nearly 50% of the land at the northern tip of Pekalongan City / Credit: Yayasan Auriga.

Yayasan Auriga Nusantara analysis shows significant changes to the Degayu coastline between 2000 and 2021. Early satellite imaging in 2020 showed Degayu was still untouched by seawater because the coastline was still far from settlement areas.

In 2021, satellite images showed an eroded coastline and the sea covering almost 50% of the land in the northernmost part of Pekalongan City, particularly in areas bordering the Batang district.

As one enters Degayu, the flooding can already be seen. The strong fishy and damp smell indicates this area has been submerged for a long time. On both sides of Ki Mangunsarkoro Street, which borders the Gamer ward, water can be seen submerging wide stretches of rice fields.

Sea water also covers other streets in Degayu. Yakhoni, who heads the RW98 neighborhood in Degayu says that some streets, including the one in front of Kartini and Faizyah’s home, were underwater for three consecutive years—2019 to 2022.

In October 2022, Yakhoni had to wear tall boots to wade through the water to visit his residents. But the more serious flooding in May last year forced hundreds of people to evacuate to safer grounds.

Faizyah, for example, had to seek temporary refuge at her parents-in-law's home 10 kilometers away.

"So I can continue to work. I took my batiks when I evacuated. It would be difficult for me to work if I evacuated to the ward office," says Faizyah.

She stayed at her in-laws’ house for 40 days, until the flooding receded.

Meanwhile, Kartini chose to evacuate to the small mosque near her home. During previous floods, Kartini stayed at home, saying she felt more comfortable working from home, even though the floods restricted her movements.

“I was resigned. I even cried, not knowing what to do,” she recounts.

Kartini was not alone. Yakhoni says that many other residents from his neighborhood also chose to stay in their homes so that they could continue to work on batiks. This would not be easy to do when evacuating elsewhere.

A pool of sea water due to the rob
A pool of seawater on the north side of Kartini and Faizyah's house, Degayu, Pekalongan / Credit: Richaldo Y Hariandja for Mongabay Indonesia.

Pekalongan has faced an annual sea level problem since 2007. Heri Andreas, a geologist from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) says that like other northern Java coastal cities, Pekalongan is also plagued by tidal floods.

He singles out two factors that make Pekalongan suffer from tidal floods—climate change and massive groundwater exploitation.

Concerning climate change, the sea level rose because ice in the North and South Poles melted, but this phenomenon did not have a significant impact because the sea level in general rose by less than one centimeter in a year.

What differentiated Pekalongan from other northern Java coastal cities was its high land subsidence rate. “It can reach more than 10 centimeters per year. When the land subsides while the sea level rises, the land is lower than the sea level,” he says during a discussion with Mongabay.

Ritoni, a fish pond farmer in Jeruk Sari, Pekalongan, says that until 2000, to reach his ponds he had to walk down steep hills. This was still far away from the main highway.

“The ponds were nice, the beach was large and if we wanted to go to the ponds, we had to walk down the hill,” he says.

Now, the ponds have disappeared, eaten up by the sea. Luckily, the 53-year-old still owns other ponds almost one kilometer south of his submerged ponds. The main highway which used to be quite high compared to the land around it is now no more than 50 centimeters above the land.

Subsidence in coastal areas is inevitable, Heri says, explaining that this is due to the nature of coastal soil which is mostly young alluvial soil, young sediments that are softer and have a higher mineral content and thus absorb water more easily.

Closer to the mountains inland, the soil is mostly alluvial fan soil and harder.

“On Java's northern coast, the soil is soft," he says. He adds that to make things worse the level of groundwater exploitation in Pekalongan is quite high.

The Pekalongan City Central Statistics Agency note that the city's population grew by almost 40,000 between 2000 and 2021. The latest data from 2021 shows a population of 308,310.

The growing population, industry, and offices lead to increasing groundwater needs as most of the city still depends on it daily.

Comparison of city and regency coastal conditions
Comparison of the coastal conditions of the Pekalongan city and Regency in 2000 and 2021 / Credit: Yayasan Auriga.

Cayekti Widigdo, Head of the Pekalongan City development planning, research and development agency says that the city needs 550 liters of water per second while the existing city-owned water company could only supply 150 liters per second.

“From that, only 80 (liters per second) are absorbed. There are still 70 liters per second to channel."

Widigdo says that the main constraint lies in the water distribution network, which is still in the process of being built. A number of segments even need to be reconstructed because they were made according to an ancient model which could not accommodate a large water debit.

Besides that, surface groundwater is not always available. Widagdo adds that since its establishment in 2019, the city’s water company has suffered from surface water shortages for four months every year.

“Therefore we cannot yet set a target as to when we can realize 100% piped water distribution for Pekalongan,” he says.

And this, he adds, is one of the reasons for the continuing groundwater exploitation in Pekalongan. Widagdo says that today one has to dig at least 40 meters to get solid water, not 25 meters as it used to be.

Groundwater exploitation in Pekalongan happens both illegally and legally, the latter through the community-based program for clean drinking and sanitation water in Pekalongan that started in 2009.

This program is a way for the local administration to ascertain the availability of drinking and sanitation water. Unfortunately, the water is drawn from deep groundwater.

Pekalongan residents prefer to get water from this program because of its affordability.

Kartini and Faizyah, for example, only pay 40,000 rupiah for their water needs. The same volume would cost them 90,000 to 100,000 rupiah per month if bought from the city-owned water company.

There should be two to three such programs in one village or urban ward. Thus, there are now at least 400 deep wells for the program in Pekalongan.

“People are happy, but in reality, this is endangering them," Andreas says.

flood inundation
Flooding towards Degayu, Pekalongan / Credit: Richaldo Y Hariandja for Mongabay Indonesia.

A study by Mercy Corps Indonesia, an organization which has a flood resilience program for Pekalongan, held together with academics from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture and the Diponegoro University, projects that rising sea levels and land subsidence will lead to the disappearance of about 5,271 hectares of land in Pekalongan City and District by 2035.

This condition means that Pekalongan will lose four times the 1,478 hectares of land it lost to the sea by 2020. The coastline is also expected to move further inland by up to 9.4 kilometers in 2035.

“From our perspective, the fact that Pekalongan City will lose 80 percent of its area by 2035 if nothing significant is done, is scary,” Denia Syam, Mercy Corps Indonesia program manager and advocacy specialist tells Mongabay.

The Pekalongan City administration knows about climate change and land subsidence that is changing their landscape but it's not being tackled appropriately, says Andreas.

Widagdo says that the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources geology agency planted six monitoring markers to measure subsidence in 2020. The results showed that the land subsided by approximately 5.7 to 5.8 centimeters in a year.

According to Andreas, some areas of Pekalongan experience 15 to 20 centimeters of subsidence per year on average.

“Whatever the method and equipment used, the fact is that Pekalongan (land surface) is getting lower,” Widagdo says.

Land subsidence in Pekalongan, according to Widagdo, is exacerbated by rising sea levels due to climate change. “If it was only because of the rising sea level, the impact should have been the same for the entire northern coast of Java,” he says.

The Pekalongan administration, he says, should see tidal floods as a long-term disaster that could threaten the city’s existence.

There are three ways to mitigate this: protect the land from overflowing sea water, protect settlements from overflowing rivers and build pump houses.

Protecting the land from sea water overflow can be done by building seawalls and parapets, Widagdo says. These types of construction can already be found in several locations in both Pekalongan city and district.

The seawalls consist of two walls 15 meters apart with a canal between them accommodating household drainage water.

When the sea overflows, it can also accommodate sea water. At both ends of the seawalls are pump houses to ensure the water in the canal does not overflow. Any excess water is channeled into the Banger and Bremi rivers to the east and west.

Widagdo says the construction of the first such seawall in Pekalongan started on the western side in 2017 and was completed in 2019. It also connects to a seawall in the Pekalongan district.

The official website of the Central Java administration says that the 514-billion-rupiah project consisted of seawall development in three locations, one for Pekalongan City and two for the Pekalongan District.

The massive seawall in the Pekalongan district was five kilometers long from Siwalan sub-district to Wonokerto. It is divided in two by the Sragi river and continues to the Tirto sub-district and connects to the North Pekalongan sub-district as well as to the Pekalongan City segment.

Parapets are walls taller than the surface of the sea or river. The first was built in 2015, two kilometers long from the crematorium to Pasir Kencana Tourism Park and completed in 2018.

A parapet was also built along main rivers such as the Loji, reaching three kilometers and the Banger river, some 3.4 kilometers long.

Pekalongan residents say that seawalls and parapets have reduced the impacts of the tidal floods. Kusriana and Muhammad Yusuf, both batik makers in Pabean ward, 4.5 kilometers from Degayu, are among those residents.

“Floods usually are quite deep but now they do not come in (to houses). So, the impact of the seawalls is already felt," Kusriana says.

Prior to the construction of the seawall, he says sea water often flooded his home, disrupting his economic activities. Kusriana could usually wash 120 batik cloths in a week. However, when tidal floods inundated his home, he could only finish half the amount.

“After the seawall was built and the road was raised, thank God, water no longer entered our home."

However, seawalls and parapets are only provisional solutions and Andreas says they are mere “bandaids” as land subsidence will worsen things and these temporary solutions do not address the root of the problem. Seawalls and parapets will also sink as the land they were built on sinks.

The 2.3 kilometer seawall that spans from Jeruk Sari in Pekalongan district to Kandang Panjang in Pekalongan City has repeatedly seen seawater overflow.

On October 11, three hours after an overflow took place, the road along it could not be passed by motorcycles as seawater eroded the land there.

On the same day, the parapet built along the Sragi Baru river also broke. This caused substantial flooding west of the Pabean pump house in Pekalongan district, in some areas deep enough to prevent motorized vehicles from passing through it.

Widagdo says that the parapet built near the crematorium in 2016 was also sinking fast along with the land subsidence there.

The sea was initially 15 centimeters lower than the street. The construction of the 70-centimeter-high parapet brought the difference to 85 centimeters. By 2020 the difference had shrunk to just 15 centimeters. "This means the sea level rose by 70 centimeters in just 2.5 years. Very fast,” Widagdo says.

However, the administration does not appear to have been discouraged from continuing to use this "solution," which involves building physical infrastructure. The parapet near the crematorium was rebuilt in 2018 and completed in 2022.

The government has also been building a seawall east of Pekalongan City since 2021, spanning from Loji river to Gabus river at the border with Batang district. The work is expected to be completed this year.

So far, the central government, Pekalongan City administration, and Central Java administration have spent 1.2 trillion rupiah dealing with tidal floods. The amount is expected to rise, Widagdo says.

A newly constructed parapet is in the pipeline, due to start in two to three years. He adds that the seawall in Jeruk Sari is also slated to be raised in four or five years.

"Like Mr. Heri Andreas said, this is just a bandaid,” Widagdo says.

Although the government knows these measures are only provisional and costly, it still sees them as the fastest way to deal with the problem. It is also the most visible.

Achmad Afzan Arslan Djunaid, mayor of Pekalongan tells Mongabay that tidal floods could not be tackled.

“Our mitigations are indeed only temporary. In fact, fighting nature is very difficult. What we can do is prevent, not overcome," he says.

Andreas however, has a different opinion and believes the tidal floods in Pekalongan can be addressed if there is strong will.

The most critical thing, he says, is to halt groundwater exploitation and many cities in the world have already taken steps to achieve that.

A house that sank due to a rob and was abandoned by residents
A house that sank due to the tidal flood and was abandoned by residents in Pekalongan Regency / Credit: Richaldo Y Hariandja for Mongabay Indonesia.

In 2013 research, Tokyo has succeeded in curbing groundwater use since the early 60s, completely halting land subsidence a decade later.

Since 1985, the Thai capital of Bangkok has also slapped high taxes on the use of groundwater, which in turn showed that the city’s land subsidence was slowing down.

Andreas realizes such a policy may be difficult to implement in Pekalongan. Jakarta, which deals with the same problem and needs 20 trillion rupiah to build a proper water pipeline network. 

However, the sum is still cheaper than the budget to build embankments and the giant sea wall. This is estimated to total between 400 and 600 trillion rupiah, he says.

“Pekalongan can do this if it really has the will. The city and province governments should share the same vision,” he says.

Another way to deal with the problem is to relocate the impacted communities. This is a much cheaper way according to Heri who estimates it would only cost 16 trillion rupiah.

Together with relocation, groundwater exploitation in coastal cities should be restricted, which will slow down land subsidence. The vacated settlement areas could then be converted into mangrove forests to halt erosion and rising sea levels due to climate change.

Ganjar Pranowo, Governor of Central Java, has voiced the idea of relocating climate change affected communities. He said this when speaking at a dialogue entitled "The Future of Pekalongan, Consequences of Every Policy and Action" last September.

The necessary communication efforts to move communities, such as Demak, have already started. ”We are approaching the people. If they want (to relocate) we will build them houses," Ganjar said.

For Pekalongan, Djunaidi said, a similar relocation discourse was once communicated to affected communities. "We once socialized it, but the community did not want it."

The promotion was conducted in the wards of Panjang, Panjang Baru, Bandengan to Pabean, all flood-prone areas. However, it was drowned by the temporary effect of seawall construction there.

Widagdo says that space constraints also present another challenge to the relocation plan.

Rice fields make up the majority of the remaining space. “Spatially, this cannot be converted,” he says, adding that coordination with authorities in other districts or municipalities where people could be relocated would be necessary.

Even this option is not easy as the authorities also have to ensure that those relocated have a means to make a living. “It must be ensured that they have a livelihood, access to education and health services and other things,” Widagdo says.

the flood embankment
Tidal flooding is exacerbated by issues of land subsidence and climate change / Credit: Richaldo Y Hariandja for Mongabay Indonesia.

This report was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Bahasa Indonesia in Mongabay Indonesia on April 30, 2023.

Banner image: The parapet wall of Kali Sragi Baru broke and flooded water onto the road / Credit: Richaldo Y Hariandja for Mongabay Indonesia.