As the tides rise, cities look to seawalls

As Jakarta becomes the world’s fastest-sinking megacity, Indonesian officials are reviving a decade-old plan to save the capital by building a giant seawall. 

Driving the news: Floods are a common occurrence in the world’s largest island country, but the effects of rising sea levels are getting worse alongside more frequent extreme weather events. Officials have even tabled a plan to build a new capital city 1,000 km away.

  • Floods are the most destructive natural hazard in Indonesia, affecting more than 10 million people in Jakarta alone, a small part of the country’s population of 274 million.

  • Experts predict that up to one-third of Jakarta could be underwater by 2050 if floods are left unchecked, with economic damages rising to over $862 million every year.  

How it works: Humans have been building walls to serve as barriers between land and sea for thousands of years. In Japan, about 40% of the coastline is lined with concrete seawalls or other structures designed to protect the country against waves, typhoons, or tsunamis.

  • In Canada, Vancouver’s seawall is known solely as a tourist attraction, but it was built around Stanley Park in 1917 to protect the park from erosion caused by waves.

  • One successful engineering effort to curb flooding can be found in Italy. Venice, the famously sinking city, narrowly avoided a flood last year thanks to its MOSE system.

Why it matters: Nearly every country in the world experiences some kind of flooding, causing high economic costs tied to damages and disruption. Seawalls work, but even existing barriers will only remain useful if they can keep up with rising sea levels.—SB