By Pongpol Sarnsamak
UTUNG JAVA, Indonesia – Though they live on a quiet island north of Jakarta Bay, far from the lights and noise of the capital, Mursalim, 60, and hundreds of other residents of the fishing island of Utung Java in Kepulauan Seribu (Thousand Islands) district are unable to rest easy at night.
The residents of this little island fear their homes could be swept away by the sea, especially during high tide. They are not concerned about a tsunami similar to the one that devastated Aceh, but by the continued erosion along the shore where their houses stand on increasingly uncertain footing.
Because of erosion, many of these families will have to move inland, by at least 50 meters, before the sea swallows up their homes. The problem is that most of the families simply cannot afford to relocate.
In a last-ditch effort to save their houses, the residents asked the Jakarta administration, which oversees Kepulauan Seribu, to finance the construction of a seawall to protect the coast from further erosion. The administration, however, has yet to respond.
Kepulauan Seribu is a group of islands scattered across the Java Sea to the north of Jakarta.
“If the Jakarta administration does not respond to our request for a seawall, we will move to mainland Jakarta,” said Mursalim.
He said most of the families now living on Utung Java had come from other islands in Kepulauan Seribu that they were forced to leave because of erosion.
Erosion is the main danger to the continued survival of the 106 existing islands in Kepulauan Seribu district, of which only 11 islands are inhabited by about 5,000 families, or 18,000 people. Most of the islands in the district used to be protected by coral reefs, but the reefs have steadily disappeared over the decades, destroyed by human activities.
One of the main causes of the destruction of the reefs is the disposal of household and industrial waste into Jakarta Bay, with the waste eventually finding its way to the islands of Kepulauan Seribu.
The unsustainable utilization of marine resources by the fishermen themselves has also contributed to the destruction of the reefs.
A research professor who specializes in coastal environments at the National Institute of Sciences, Otto SR Ongkosongo, said erosion and other human activities in Kepulauan Seribu had already caused a number of islands to disappear completely.
At least 10 islands have disappeared since 1983, including Van der Smith, Ubi Besar, Air Sedang, Air Kecil, Nyamuk Besar, Dapur, Jong and Telegraf islands.
Otto said seven more islands were in danger of being lost because of erosion. He identified the islands as Nyamuk Kecil, Damar Kecil, Kelor, Sakit, Kapal Onrust, Air Besar, or Ayer, and Bidadari. The last two islands are well-known tourist spots.
If something is not done soon to halt the erosion, these seven islands could be lost forever by 2020.
Otto said erosion was not the only danger to the islands. He said some of the islands in the district were disappearing because their sand was being hauled away to Jakarta to support the construction industry in the capital.
Otto said the government appeared not to have learned anything from the disappearance of Ubi Besar island, which was swallowed up by the sea after the Jakarta administration removed sand from the island for the construction of Soekarno-Hatta International Airport between 1983 and 1987.
To save the islands of Kepulauan Seribu, Otto suggested the administration in Jakarta build concrete defenses around threatened islands, or build resorts on the islands and open them up for investment.