Fishermen flee rising sea

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Fishermen flee rising sea

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On the Indonesian island of Lombok, plan B has become plan A as seas rise faster than the models predicted

  • Residents of the Indonesian island of Lombok say sea levels are rising at alarming levels, swallowing seaside towns.
  • People are abandoning their family trade of fishing to grow seaweed instead or leave the island for stable employment.
  • The provincial government created a climate adaptation task force to address the compounding problems of climate change, as families send their children to school and hope they choose a life different from fishing.

The sea rise projections

In 2009, a group of Indonesian researchers published a report on the vulnerability to climate change of the eastern Indonesian island of Lombok, home to about 4 million people. Their prediction, based on International Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Emissions Scenarios projections, was that the sea level along the Lombok coast would rise 2-6 inches by 2020 and 5-14 inches by 2050. The former is roughly a loaf of sandwich bread, the latter a baguette standing on its head.

The numbers suggest a significant height increase, but they sound staid compared with the reality that is already playing out on the ground. At the end of 2022, Mongabay talked to residents of Lombok’s east and west coasts, and what we heard was alarming.

The sea rise reality

The ocean is swallowing seaside towns. Fishers are abandoning their family trade, choosing instead to tame small patches of nearshore water with seaweed farms, if not retreat from the beach, and occasionally leaving the Indonesian archipelago completely for stable employment in the Middle East.


The ocean is getting closer

“That used to be my house,” said Mastah, pointing to a patch of the sea surface near Lombok’s eastern shore. A longtime resident of Telindung village, Mastah recalled the town’s previous iteration as a seaside hamlet where locals would gather for an annual sea blessing ceremony, marking the occasion by banging brass gamelan gongs and xylophones. “Folks would come from all over,” she said, recalling a memory and place that today lies underwater.

“Right now the sea water is getting closer but the fish are farther away.”

Tidal flooding was never an anomaly for Telidung residents. The floods were an annual phenomenon. It was normal for seawater to creep into their yards around the New Year. In the 1990s, folks started noticing salt water in their yard more frequently, not just around New Year’s. Then the tides started to enter the houses closest to the sea. In 2002, residents started to relocate their houses to farm plots they owned farther from the coast. Then the ocean swallowed those sites too. In 2008, the district government built a special housing complex for Telindung fishers. That year, the houses at the old village site sank below the sea surface.

Some, like Mastah’s former neighbor Ismail, chose not to move despite pleas from visiting government representatives.

“Moving a house takes money,” Ismail said. This one-time fisherman retains his abode, which now sits precipitously on a seaside cliff. Ismail has detached his work from this unstable environment, traveling instead to Malaysia for stints as a migrant laborer.

When Plan B becomes Plan A

Fifty miles away, on the west coast of Lombok, fisher families in Ampenan, a coastal suburb of the island’s sole city of Mataram, are faced with similar conditions. The coastline is eroding. Ocean storms are getting fiercer. Increasingly, villagers are opting to mine sand or do odd jobs instead of fish. Similar to Ismail, many are now migrant laborers. The men mostly go to Malaysia, the women to Saudi Arabia.

“Right now the sea water is getting closer but the fish are farther away,” said Nurhayati, the wife of an Ampenan fisherman. She has already returned from a stint in Saudi Arabia.

Though locals might not name it, climate adaptation is utmost in many minds.

Some fishing villages have adapted by reducing hours spent at sea fishing to invest time into seaweed cultivation near the shoreline.

Can policy abate pain? Or correct course?

Though locals might not name it, climate adaptation is utmost in many minds.

The government is trying to help. The fisheries ministry has built wave barriers out of bamboo at various sites on Lombok. In 2007, the government of West Nusa Tenggara province became Indonesia’s first to create a climate adaptation taskforce in response to the national climate adaptation plan (RAN-MAPI). In 2008, it set up a One-Stop Services program in Mataram to expedite the processing of travel documents for migrant workers. In 2018, it set up another five centers in Lombok.

However, the anecdotes are adding up to a portrait of many in a difficult situation feeling unaided, or needing to course correct.

“Thankfully the government has given educational scholarships to my children,” said Salib, an elderly fisherman from the sea-facing Bintaro neighborhood of Mataram city. Salib used to park his boat far from the houses in his quarter, past a field where children played, past pandan palms lining the river delta. Bank erosion has since brought his boat parking right into his yard. When the tidal floods come now, seawater enters the house, leaving sand behind. The walls of his once high-ceilinged rooms get shorter every year. Now he steps down from the yard to enter the house.

“I hope [my children] don’t become fishermen,” Salib said.

This was first published in Mongabay. All images by Mongabay.

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Mongabay publishes news on environmental science, energy, and green design and features extensive information on tropical rainforests, including pictures and deforestation statistics for countries of the world.