CliFi — Amsterdam and Jakarta

NB: I wrote these four CliFi scenarios* in 2019 for a paper on life in a “post-water” world, but they had to go, so I am posting them here for your enjoyment (or horror). Please tell me what you think!

Scenario 1: Drought in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is located in Nord Holland, a province in the west of the Netherlands that lies in the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta, and thus at the foot of several major rivers. The local ecology and many methods of managing water take excess water and cooler temperatures for granted, but these gifts are not forever. As I write (July 2019), the Netherlands has just reached its highest recorded temperature (40.4C), and the heat is causing problems for people, farmers and infrastructure. What will happen if these temperatures become common-place? How would Amsterdam cope with the risks from heat and drought?

The good news is that water for humans is unlikely to run out. Amsterdam sits adjacent to the IJsselmeer, the largest freshwater lake in the Netherlands, which has a surface area of 1,133 km2 and average depth of 4.4 meters, meaning a volume of around 5 km2 (Rijkswaterstaat, 2017). That’s over 50 times Amsterdam’s current water use (Waternet, n.d.).

The bad news is that drought would also damage local ecosystems. Falling groundwater would mean dead vegetation and weaker trees, some of which would fall in otherwise “normal” storms. Increased heat will lead to infrastructure failures, such as draw-bridges that lock shut due to metal expansion, or roads, rails and runways that are too hot to bear trucks, trains or planes (Staff, 2019). Individuals faced with “public bads” of hot air and drying ground, will install and use air conditioners and spray drinking water on parched gardens. Poorer citizens and marginal businesses will suffer — unable to afford the costs of equipment or the energy to run it. Some city services will fill the gap, but productivity and happiness will drop (Deryugina & Hsiang, 2014; Kjellstrom, Holmer, & Lemke, 2009).

In terms of institutions for managing water, perhaps the only possible responses to the public bad would be a program of improved public goods to increase local cooling, such as denser tree cover and perhaps restoring water-flows to canals that were filled and converted into roads decades ago. Ignoring sea-level rise and storm surges, Amsterdam should be able to limit the risks from drought and heat.

Scenario 2: Jakarta floods

Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and home to over ten million people, has been having trouble with sinking land, saltwater intrusion and floods for decades (Pur- nama & Marfai, 2012). These three problems can be attributed to the abstraction, use and discharge of freshwater from local aquifers. This classic case of a tragedy of the commons results from the private use (withdrawal) of freshwater from the common-pool aquifer that everyone can access but also which keeps the land from sinking.

There are two main solutions to these dilemmas: to mitigate or adapt. Mitiga- tion would require building infrastructure to import fresh water and inject treated wastewater under the city, but that’s not happening. Instead, there are efforts to adapt by raising dikes to protect sinking land and building a barrier island to slow down storm surges that risk flooding land (Sherwell, 2016). This “Garuda Project” is complex and controversial, but it is surely cheaper than rebuilding drinking- and wastewater systems to serve ten million, mostly poor residents.[19] Unfortunately, the Garuda project might deplete funds, weaken solidarity, and increase risk. Where’s the post-water element? The people (and leadership) of Jakarta need to live as if they are on an arid island, but they are consuming scarce fresh water as if it’s abundant, which puts them at risk of getting too much salty water.

Let’s assume that the Garuda project is built, and business as usual continues. The ground continues to sink, but the barrier island has created a lagoon on the city’s shore, and flooding has decreased. Barrier island residents live apart from fellow citizens whose houses lie 3m below sea level are protected by higher walls.

Now introduce surprisingly fast climate change based on exceptional methane releases (Weitzman, 2011). Increasing temperatures and greater atmospheric activ- ity means larger typhoons (called cyclones or hurricanes elsewhere in the world). Although Jakarta is not usually struck by typhoons, Typhoon Indra strikes in 2035 with high winds and a storm surge that overwhelms the barrier island (flooding hundreds of expensive cars and cutting power to the whole island) and flows into Jakarta. Thousands die as 8m waves crush down on sunken neighborhoods. When the storm recedes, half of the four districts closest to the sea is gone, replaced by a new shoreline and “beaches” of rubble, crushed cars and bodies. Half a million people are homeless. Fifty thousand are dead or missing.

The overwhelmed local government asks for help. Foreigners bring money and ideas, but no consensus recovery plan. Millions leave the capital for inland regions, hungry and desperately poor. Domestic aid is hard to organize or fund without political leadership, and the rich (such as those on the barrier island) do not feel inclined to pay. They withdraw further into their climate-proof enclaves. The poor cannot grow their own food. Local farmers do not have enough water to grow even their typical crops. Hunger intensifies. Many are sick from drinking polluted water. Aid workers do their best, but a significant minority support a new group that goes by the handle @newgaruda.

This example focusses on three factors: inequality, underinvestment, and climate risk. Inequality makes it hard for people to cooperate, as they “other” neighbors. Underinvestment (in mitigation) falls in to the “penny wise pound foolish” trap of trying to cover a basic problem with a partial (and inadequate) solution. Climate risk is present in all these examples, but this example uses uncertainty — a big storm in an under-prepared location.

* CliFi (or Climate Fiction) draws on science fiction’s long tradition of thinking about possible future by combining human behavior with future technology. In the case of CliFi, the future “technology” is a changing climate, and these examples look into climate-related post-water shocks. I used this speculative method for two volumes of “CliFi” short stories [free to download] that I edited and published a few years ago.

  • Deryugina, T., & Hsiang, S. M. (2014, December). Does the Environment Still Matter? Daily Temperature and Income in the United States. NBER Working Paper, 20750.
  • Kjellstrom, T., Holmer, I., & Lemke, B. (2009, Nov). Workplace heat stress, health and productivity – an increasing challenge for low and middle-income countries during climate change. Glob Health Action, 2.
  • Purnama, S., & Marfai, M. (2012). Saline water intrusion toward groundwater: Issues and its control. Journal of Natural Resources and Development, 2, 25-32.
  • Rijkswaterstaat. (2017, Oct). Natura 2000 Beheerplan IJsselmeergebied 2017–2023 [IJsselmeer region management plan] (Tech. Rep.).
  • Sherwell, P. (2016). $40bn to save Jakarta: the story of the Great Garuda. The Guardian, 22 Nov.
  • Staff. (2019). It has never been hotter since records began: temperature tops 39c. Dutch News, 24 July.
  • Waternet. (n.d.). Ons drinkwater [our drinking water].
  • Weitzman, M. L. (2011). Fat-tailed uncertainty in the economics of catastrophic climate change. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 5(2), 275- 292. 

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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