Sinking Cities in Southeast and South Asia: Venice Isn’t the Only One Facing the Challenge

sinking cities - Jakarta by Yamtono_Sardi from Getty Images Signature
Rising waters, sinking cities : the rising sea levels are not just a measurement in millimeters or inches; they symbolize an existential crisis for millions.
In the heart of the 21st century, a silent, relentless transformation is underway. Rising sea levels, a consequence of our warming planet, are encroaching upon the world’s coastal cities, threatening to erase them from the map by the century’s end.


The World Economic Forum has spotlighted a list of ten cities, each a tale of survival against the rising tide. In this narrative, the rising sea levels are not just a measurement in millimeters or inches; they symbolize an existential crisis for millions.
Furthermore, a study published in Nature Communications reveals that by 2100, around 200 million people worldwide could be living below sea level. An additional 160 million are expected to experience higher annual flooding due to rising ocean levels. These figures significantly surpass previous estimates, which suggested a total of 250 million people would be affected, based on different coastal elevation models. The study’s model projects these outcomes under a global average temperature increase of 2° C, without considering potential accelerated melting of ice sheets.
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Asia’s  Cities Sinking At Fastest Rate  

Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling capital, is subsiding at an alarming rate of 6.7 inches annually, victim to excessive groundwater pumping. Experts from the Bandung Institute of Technology warning that over 95 percent of North Jakarta could be submerged by 2050. The country is facing an alarming rate of sinking, compounded by sea levels rising by 11 inches annually. This places approximately 40% of the capital below sea level. The increase in sea levels is driven not only by climate change and melting glaciers but is also intensified by Jakarta’s geographical location in a valley, where mountain waters relentlessly descend.
The government’s response is drastic yet necessary: a proposed relocation of the capital to Borneo, a $33 billion venture to save its 10 million inhabitants from an aquatic grave.
Bangkok, Thailand, is on a countdown, sinking more than a centimeter yearly. Thailand’s capital was moved here 240 years ago on the banks of Chao Phraya River, lifeblood to acres of rice paddies, at the time the lifeblood of the economy. Today, this dense, concrete megacity of some 10 million residents is sinking at a rate of up to two-thirds of an inch every year. During high tides after some flooding events, the river has risen nearly 10 feet above sea level.
Manila, one of the cities most at risk of inundation due to rising sea levels, faces a dire future. Greenpeace East Asia forecasts that, by 2030, Manila could be submerged under seawater and coastal floods if extreme sea level rise and storm surges occur. This scenario threatens highly populated residential, industrial, and commercial areas, with a projected GDP loss of US$39 billion. The sea level in Manila Bay is escalating at a rate of 13.24 millimeters per year, while Metro Manila itself is sinking approximately 10 centimeters annually. This sinking is primarily attributed to rapid urbanization and the over-extraction of groundwater.”
Vietnam’s bustling metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, is grappling with a severe sinking predicament. Averaging a descent of 16.2 millimeters (0.6 inches) annually, it tops the list of sinking coastal cities worldwide, as revealed by a satellite data survey. Districts 2, 7, 8, 12, Go Vap, Tan Binh, Binh Thanh, Phu Nhuan, Binh Tan, and Thu Duc are among the hardest hit. Climate Central’s 2019 projections paint a dire future: by 2050, most of southern Vietnam faces the threat of flooding, and a one-meter sea-level rise could submerge 18% of Ho Chi Minh City and 39% of the Mekong Delta.
Moreover, researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) identify excessive groundwater extraction as the primary culprit for this alarming trend. The city’s skyline, marked by a surge in high-rise buildings, symbolizes its rapid development. However, these structures, lacking a stable foundation, exacerbate the risk of land subsidence. Compounding the issue, Vietnam ranks among the top five nations vulnerable to both inland and coastal flooding, according to Nature’s research.
In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, a looming crisis is taking shape, one that encapsulates the stark realities of climate change. By 2050, it is projected that the relentless rise of the oceans could inundate 17% of Bangladesh’s land, transforming the landscape and triggering a human exodus of staggering proportions.
The numbers paint a grim picture: approximately 18 million Bangladeshis, grappling with the rising tide, may have to abandon their homes, livelihoods, and histories. This mass displacement isn’t merely a demographic shift; it’s a humanitarian emergency in the making, with profound social, economic, and political ramifications.

What Causing The Problem ?  

The gradual sinking of land under its own weight—is not new. Historically linked with agricultural regions, such as California’s San Joaquin Valley where decades of groundwater extraction for irrigation caused significant sinking, urban subsidence is now a critical issue for many coastal cities worldwide.
Herbert Einstein, a professor of rock mechanics at MIT, notes that lowering the groundwater table is a primary cause of subsidence globally. In urban settings, subsidence can be dramatic. For instance, San Francisco’s Millennium Tower sank over 40 centimeters in a decade, with similar issues noted across the San Francisco Bay Area. Research geophysicist Tom Parsons of the USGS observes subsidence rates ranging from five to 80 millimeters in the area, particularly around heavily constructed zones like the San Francisco International Airport. He attributes this to the increased weight of buildings and the resultant subterranean water flow changes.
The phenomenon is particularly alarming in cities like Jakarta, Indonesia, the world’s fastest-sinking city, where extensive groundwater pumping has caused substantial land subsidence, with 40 percent of the city now below sea level. Urbanization-driven subsidence, coupled with sea-level rise, poses a significant threat to coastal populations worldwide, with 60 percent of people living in coastal areas and a similar proportion of the world’s most populated cities near coasts.
As urban populations grow and migrate to coastal cities, the issue of subsidence is expected to worsen, especially in developing countries. While sea level rise is a global challenge, subsidence is a localized issue that, in many cases, is more significant and manageable. “Subsidence is easier to manage because it is a local problem and often much more pronounced,” says Jaap Nienhuis, a geomorphologist at Utrecht University. “In cities like Jakarta, you might see tens of centimeters of subsidence annually, compared to a couple of millimeters from sea level rise.” Addressing subsidence requires increased awareness and targeted local solutions, offering hope for many cities to mitigate one of the most pressing threats they face.”

Lead image courtesy of   Yamtono_Sardi from Getty Images Signature

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