1 - Sinking City
Jakarta lies on an embayment on the northern shore of Java, where thirteen rivers come together to enter the ocean. As a result of the geography and climate of the area — storm tides and intense rain are common — the low-lying land on which the city is located regularly floods. Despite this, the site has been used as a port since the early years of the Common Era.
In the late sixteenth century, Dutch merchants began to use the safe harbour there as a staging ground for their spice trading in that part of the world. The Dutch, who by that time were well launched into their effort to protect their own fields and cities back home, introduced a clever system of canals and holding ponds that for a while served to tame the waters. But hundreds of years have passed, and as the twenty-first century has advanced, it has become clear that the combination of rising seas, more frequent torrential rains, and the pumping of groundwater is resulting in a sinking city that is less and less suitable as a site for a government centre.
In August 2019, exactly four hundred years after the Dutch established their trading post at what is now Jakarta, Indonesian president Joko Widodo decreed that all would be better if the government were moved to a different island, a couple of hours away by air in the East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo. In contrast to Jakarta, which is on Indonesia’s westernmost island, the new capital, to be called Nusantara, will be more or less equidistant from the eastern and western extremities of the island nation. It also would be on higher ground and in a region less often rocked by seismic chills and thrills. Some fifteen or sixteen million of the people living in greater Jakarta would stay where they were, however; only the government officials, their families, and the services they would rely on would move house.
There were ceremonial announcements and extended videos of the site. The multinational consulting firm McKinsey was engaged to do strategic planning. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, signed on as an important adviser. The government boasted that investors were lining up to help make the new city a technological wonder set in an environmentally friendly paradise.
At the time the announcement was made, the country was doing very well economically and boasted of cutting its poverty rate in half over the previous twenty years, from a high of around 20 percent in 1999 to around 10 percent in 2019. Indeed, according to the World Bank, it had reached “upper middle-income status” and had become the world’s tenth-largest economy in terms of purchasing power. This relative prosperity has not been without its downside: Indonesia is the tenth largest greenhouse gas–emitting nation in the world, although on a per capita basis, it is one of the least polluting.4 In fact, Indonesia contributes greatly to the problem of rising seas and climate change that it must deal with, since the nation relies heavily on coal-fired electricity-generating plants. It also is the world’s biggest exporter of thermal coal, and for extensive periods over the last thirty years has allowed, and in some cases encouraged, the burning of its tropical forests to replant in oil palms.
Fascinating, I thought. I wanted to see the situation first-hand, and I got as far as starting to study Bahasa Indonesia (the official language) and making tentative reservations when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. It didn’t help that Indonesia was on the back of the curve, with Covid-19 really taking hold in late April 2020. Things got progressively worse afterward, due to a number of missteps that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that one Indonesian public health official told the New York Times that the country initially had a health minister who thought the disease could be stopped by prayer. Nevertheless, in the meantime I started to work in earnest on the book and to muse about what would happen when changes dictated by a global pandemic encountered changes that were going to become necessary because of global climate disaster.
What I didn’t know when I started work was that the islands of Indonesia offer a great vantage point from which to consider just how humans have interacted with sea and savannah for thousands of years.
Before we go any further, it might be wise to say a word here about the difference between rising sea levels and tides. The latter are caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon on the waters of the Earth. For as long as there have been oceans, the water in them has bulged toward the heavenly bodies as the Earth rotates. This creates an oscillation that carries water up and down a coastal margin twice a day. The highest tides come at the full moon and the new moon because that’s when the Earth, moon, and sun are aligned. But there are times when tides are higher than the usual high tides, particularly around the equinoxes — that is, the start of spring and fall. The cosmos are aligned, literally, so that there will be maximum swing in the oceans’ waters during the twelve-hour period of the tides. In some places, these are called king tides, but they occur everywhere and give a glimpse of what rising sea levels will bring on a permanent basis. If they are combined with a weather “event,” watch out!
It is important to realize that the issue of rising sea levels we are dealing with today has been encountered before; many times in the past, humans have been faced with waters that lap higher and higher with each season. In fact, even before the first group of humans successfully walked out of Africa, there had been numerous encounters with rising sea levels.
Another thing to remember is that a rise in sea level is not like the filling of your bathtub. If it were, accommodation would be easier and could be accomplished in slow steps that might give people the time to figure out the best way to cope. No, while a barely noticeable rise in water levels continues in the background, the great damage that is done comes more suddenly, when storms whip up waves that magnify high tides, engulfing houses and encampments, eroding cliffs, breaching sandbars, and pushing salt water up rivers and into groundwater.
At times in the past, a fight was put up: seawalls were constructed, coastal waters were dredged, magic was invoked. Frequently, it became clear that the community had to move.
Yes, had to move. Again and again people must have decided to do just that. We’ll never know what kind of discussions a group might have had, whether the old ones were ignored as they complained (as the old so often do) that the world was going to hell in a handbasket, or whether their memories and wisdom were valued and used to help guide the group’s actions. Nor do we know if scouts were sent out to see what country might be promising elsewhere. Or if the collapse of a cliff to the waves and winds of a big storm led to flight in a matter of days or, worse, sudden death.
What we do know is that people have had to cope with rising sea levels for a very long time.
This is a story of how they did that. It is a story that should give hope, because it tells of the resilience of people, of their collective wisdom, of their spirit. It is also a cautionary tale: the effects of rising sea levels aren’t going to be the same on everyone. Even people who live in more or less the same place will be affected differently, and that has implications for what we should do and how we should do it.
Jakarta is a case in point. The crowded housing and the filthy canals of the old city will remain when the capital moves; the people who will be running the show will be the ones who relocate. Removing a couple million people from Jakarta will not reduce the size of the city in any significant way. The problems of a sinking city and rising sea levels will be far from solved.


An incredible read.… While unflinching in her analysis, Soderstrom nevertheless gifts us with a message of hope and resilience. — MAUDE BARLOW, activist and author of Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism.
What can we learn about coping with rising sea levels from ancient times?
The scenario we are facing is scary: within a few decades, sea levels around the world may well rise by a metre or more as glaciers and ice caps melt due to climate change. Large parts of our coastal cities will be flooded, the basic outline of our world will be changed, and torrential rains will present their own challenges. But this is not the first time that people have had to cope with threatening waters, because sea levels have been rising for thousands of years, ever since the end of the last Ice Age. Stories told by the Indigenous people in Australia and on the Pacific coast of North America, and those found in the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as Roman and Chinese histories all bear witness to just how traumatic these experiences were. The responses to these challenges varied: people adapted by building dikes, canals, and seawalls; by resorting to prayer or magic; and, very often, by moving out of the way of the rushing waters.
Against the Seas explores these stories as well as the various measures being taken today to combat rising waters, focusing on five regions: Indonesia, Shanghai, the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, the Salish Sea, and the estuary of the St. Lawrence River. What happened in the past and what is being tried today may help us in the future and, if nothing else, give us hope that we will survive.


Soderstrom sets out in clear, detailed terms what has been done (not enough) and, more importantly, what can be done (surprisingly, a lot) to slow down the juggernaut of global warming.

- WAYNE GRADY, author of The Quiet Limit of the World

Against the Seas is a clear-eyed and fascinating look at the central threat our species faces: sea-level rise as a result of climate change. Soderstrom writes with the fluidity of a novelist, weaving history, hydrology, and climate science into compact narratives about the regions most affected and what we can hope to do to mitigate the worst.

- T.C. BOYLE, author of World's End

An incredible read… While unflinching in her analysis, Soderstrom nevertheless gifts us with a message of hope and resilience.

- MAUDE BARLOW, activist and author of Still Hopeful: Lesson from a Lifetime of Activism

A compelling history of rising waters from throughout human history; Mary Soderstrom delivers an educational and compelling read about our past, present, and future relationships to the changing waters of the world.

- Montreal Review of Books

Soderstrom peppers her enlightening book with risk factors from around the globe, including cresting rivers, deluges, and harsh tides — all exacerbated by a changing climate. But will leaders act on the solutions Soderstrom enumerates?

- Literary Review of Canada