Villagers in the Demak district of Java, Indonesia, help to maintain natural wooden seawalls. COURTESY OF WETLANDS INTERNATIONAL

On Java’s Coast, A Natural Approach to Holding Back the Waters

The Indonesian island of Java has lost 70 percent of the mangroves that once protected its coast from erosion and flooding. Now villagers are using natural wooden barriers to try to restore the mangrove forests and save their lands and homes from being washed away.

To reach Timbulsloko, a village on the north coast of the Indonesian island of Java, we drove for 3 miles along a narrow causeway. All the way, there were lines of houses strung out on either side of the road. But behind them, rather than fields, there was only water, punctuated by half-submerged fences and the remnants of dykes. Something, it was clear, had gone badly wrong here.

Two decades before, this had been all land; but since then, the ocean had steadily invaded. Richer residents along the road were rebuilding their houses on new, higher foundations to keep above the rising tides. Other houses were inundated, abandoned, or marooned on tiny islands that could only be reached by rickety walkways. The village cemetery was being washed away – locals said lapping waters occasionally floated decomposing bodies into their living rooms.

At the far end of the causeway, in the meeting hall, village leaders discussed the plight of their community and remembered the old days, before the water came. The village of 3,500 people had been on a prosperous, rice-growing river delta, famous for its fertile soils and protected from the ocean by a wide belt of mangroves. “I grew up in the 1960s when the sea was more than a mile away,” said Slamet, a fisherman. “Then the flooding began.”

Beside him, community activist Mat Sairi admitted that the village had made mistakes back then. Like almost every other coastal community in the area, they had wanted to make money by raising prawns and milkfish. So they converted their rice fields into ponds and began cutting down the mangroves along the shore to make more.

“Before, we had a good life with rice and fish,” a villager says. “Now we only have a memory of agricultural land.”

“Our parents warned us that we should protect the mangroves,” he remembered. “They said the mangroves provided many benefits, like the oysters, crabs, and fish among their roots, as well as protection of the coastline. But our people wanted to make money and feed their families.”

With the protective mangroves mostly gone, the sea began to wash away the dykes that surrounded the ponds. By 2013, it had penetrated inland for about a mile. The village has lost 25 rows of fish ponds, Sairi said. Now the waters lapped at their houses along the raised causeway. Other nearby villages had been entirely washed away. They feared they might be next. But they had a plan that they believed would save them, by encouraging nature to restore the mangroves.

Indonesia, an archipelago of about 18,000 islands, has vast areas of low-lying coast. Once the sea was kept at bay by dense thickets of saltwater-tolerant mangroves. Indonesia still has more mangroves than anywhere else, but they are under huge pressure. The country is now the world’s fourth most populous, and Java is its most densely populated island. As its coastal lowlands have become more crowded, Java has lost 70 percent of its mangroves to rice fields, fish ponds, and other economic activities such as ports and industrial areas, opening up the coastline to rapid erosion.

Nowhere has suffered more than Timbulsloko and a string of neighboring villages in Demak, a low-lying district on the island’s north shore. At a meeting in Demak late last year, officials told me that more than 7 square miles of the district had been permanently inundated. In places, the coastline has retreated by more than 2 miles. In 2017 alone, more than 500 people lost their homes, and a thousand fish ponds covering 1,250 acres had been swamped. They predict the future loss of another 25 square miles.

In Java's Demak district, 7 square miles of land has been permanently inundated due to the loss of mangrove forests.
In Java's Demak district, 7 square miles of land has been permanently inundated due to the loss of mangrove forests. COURTESY OF WETLANDS INTERNATIONAL

My tour of Demak villages revealed the human stories behind this tragedy. Like Timbulsloko, the village of Bedono was strung out along a raised road now surrounded by sea. Its main community building was built on stilts and nicknamed Bedono Island. Mudskippers and crabs scurried in the muck beneath. “Before, we had a good life with rice and fish,” said the young village head, Agus Salim. “Now we only have a memory of agricultural land.”

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