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Commentary: Indonesia's small islands may soon disappear beneath the sea

As polar ice caps continue to melt, rising sea levels will swallow up islands in the Indonesian archipelago, says researchers.

BANDUNG, Indonesia: As the world’s largest archipelagic country, Indonesia should be showing more concern about the impact of climate change on small islands.

Sea levels have risen by around 21 to 24cm globally since the pre-industrial level as a result of melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic.

A recent study by Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) estimates that at least 115 of Indonesia’s small islands are on the verge of sinking. This is due to rising sea levels and land subsidence.

The research and advocacy organisation Climate Central calculates that a one-metre rise in sea levels will flood the northern shore of Java island, one of the most densely populated islands in the world. This is because of the coastal terrain’s low slope (between 0 and 20 degrees).

This threat is becoming visible. Our 2011 research showed rising sea levels had sunk some parts of small islands. Without aggressive mitigation efforts, BRIN’s forecast could become a reality.

Rising sea levels and rapid land subsidence due to over-extraction of groundwater have caused Jakarta to sink at an average of 10 centimeters (4 inches) a year. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)


As a result of rising sea levels, bigger waves will “redesign” coastlines. The land sediments can also fall into the sea, causing erosion and flooding in other areas – which will sink small islands sooner or later.

Our study found Rondo Island, located at the western area of the Malacca Strait in Aceh province, lost 1,856 square metres (sq m) of land each year from 1993 to 2009 because of annual rise in sea levels that reached 1.30mm per year.

Berhala Island, located in the eastern area of Malacca Strait in Riau province, recorded a higher trend (about 3.46mm per year). So has Nipah Island, which is close to Singapore, which sees a 3.48mm annual rise.

These have reduced the area of the two islands by 3,178 sq m and 3,409 sq m - about half the size of a professional football pitch - per year, respectively, from 1993 to 2009.

The interim result of an ongoing unpublished study by a research team from the Department of Marine Science of Padjadjaran University in West Java found the area of five of Indonesia’s remote islands had shrunk. Over a decade, these land reductions ranged from 0.005 sq km to 0.09 sq km – nearly equal to 13 football fields.

The change is estimated by using pixel analysis of several satellite photographs.

We found Miangas Island (3.2 sq km), which lies near the border of Indonesia and the Philippines, has lost 0.02 per cent of its area (around 0.00064 sq km per year) since 2004.

The same fate is facing Sekatung Island (1.65 sq km) in Kepulauan Riau province, which is experiencing loss by 0.66 per cent of the area (0.01989 sq km) per year.

Since 2004, Berhala Island has also lost an area of 0.002 sq km per year.

Islands in eastern Indonesia face the same risk. For example, in the northern area of Cenderawasih Bay in Papua, Workbondi Island – which covers an area of 1.62 sq km or two times as big as China’s Forbidden City – experienced a 0.004 sq km per year of area decline.

Candikian Island and Gosong Island, both in southern Java Sea, were nearly submerged. Only a few square metres of land remain, with no more than two metres elevation above sea level.

Meanwhile, the area of Biawak Island, located in the same sea, has shrunk by half the size of Vatican City (0.22 sq km) annually. We predict this island will sink when the sea level reaches 0.5 metres.


We should accept the fact that climate change has already caused irreversible damage. Even if the best risk reduction efforts have been made, sea levels are still expected to increase by at least between 0.6m and 1.1m by 2100, under various scenarios.

Efforts to adapt must be undertaken. One example is planting maritime pine on a sand-structured island as has been done in Taka Bonerate National Park in the Selayan Islands, South Sulawesi province. Maritime pines help to reduce erosion as well as enhancing soil quality.

Indonesia could also follow the example of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which has developed technology for land reclamation and coastal protection. This approach needs extensive planning and massive funding.

Communities in the coastal areas, in particular, must increase their resiliency to this crisis. More stilted houses must be built to adapt to worsening coastal inundation.

In the country’s recent climate pledge, Indonesia has committed to cutting emissions by 29 to 41 per cent by 2030. This pledge, which was also submitted by other countries, was presented at the United Nations COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

This is an important opportunity for Indonesia and other island countries to define actions in working towards zero emissions by 2050, or maybe sooner, which will decide the future existence of small islands.

Noir Primadona Purba and Muhamad Maulana Rahmadi are researchers at Padjadjaran University, Indonesia. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

Climate change has been declared an existential threat to Singapore. Steve Lai speaks to experts to find out more about its devastating global impact, the potential effects on Singapore and some solutions to rising sea levels.

Source: CNA/ep


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