Degradation of green spaces and impacts of climate change are threatening to sink Gorontalo City. A research predicts the coastal city in Sulawesi will be under water by 2050

Meti Ismail still remembers the event that occurred in early June 2020. The 54-year-old housewife and her family had to leave their flooded home in the Bugis urbanward of Gorontalo city, as the banks of the Bone River, one of the main rivers that passes through Gorontalo Province, overflowed.

Heavy rainfall in Bone Bolango District, where the upstream of Bone River is located was blamed for the flood that inundated parts of Gorontalo, including Meti’s house. The roof was the only structure that remained untouched by the muddy water.

“When the water started rising, we immediately pack up and left,” Meti told Mongabay on October 7, 2021.

The flood was the biggest in the past decade and left Meti traumatized. Now, every time it rains, this mother of five will have trouble sleeping as she fears the flood would come again.

When the river water that enters her house reaches the calf of an adult, that’s a sign for Meti and her family to leave. Her house is perched on the ground, a meter away from the river bank.

“My kitchen wall is on the river embankment. So when flood hits, my kitchen is the first to be filled with flood water,” said Meti.

Above: Rainfall in Gorontalo City from 2016 to 2019. Source: Gorontalo Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency and Gorontalo Statistics Agency. Graphic: Sarjan Lahay

Risnawati Abas recalls a very similar story. Her house was built very close to the river bank, and a part of the river embankment forms her kitchen wall. The 50-year-old rice seller could not afford to move elsewhere.

Whenever there is flooding, Risnawati sought refuge at the Bele Li Mbu’I Gorontalo multi-purpose hall located one kilometer away from her home.

“Where else can I stay if I have to move? This house is my only asset left by my parents. I have lived here for about 50 years despite of the floods,” said Risnawati adding that the seasonal and tidal floods in Gorontalo that have affected residents like her and Meti, are worsening.

Gorontalo City has a long history of flooding because it lies on the estuary of two main rivers — the Bone and the Bolango.

Data from the Gorontalo City Regional Disaster Mitigation Agency showed that the city was hit by 31 floods in 2014, 17 in 2018 and nine floods took place in 2019 and 2020. The Dumbo Raya Subdistrict where Meti and Risnawati live and the neighboring Hulonthalangi, are among the two worst and most often hit whenever there’s a heavy rainfall.

Iqrima, an environmental lecturer at the Gorontalo Polytechnics, said the annual tidal floods that hit Gorontalo, which are also worsening by the year, are a clear impact of climate change. Settlements, said Iqrima, should be at least 10 meters above sea level to avoid tidal flooding.

Gorontalo City Central Statistical Agency data showed that there were four subdistricts in the city that were prone to be flooded as their elevations are lower than 10 meters; Dumbo Raya (5 masl) and Hulonthalangi (9 masl), Kota Selatan (5 masl) and Kota Timur (6 masl).

“Gorontalo City has two major estuaries, the Bone and the Bolango. We should not be surprised that when there is a high rainfall, the city of Gorontalo will often get flooded,” Iqrima said.

The Ministry of Public Works and People’s Housing, through the Gorontalo office of the Sulawesi II River Basin Agency, is building an embankment to control the flood in the coastal areas of Bone river. The Mayor of Gorontalo, Marten Taha believes the embankment is a solution in to the flooding. 

“That embankment is currently being built. We believe that this embankment is the solution to the flooding in Gorontalo. Even though there are challenges in land acquisitions, the construction should not stop,” he said at the end of September.

Despite the embankment construction, Iqrima feared that threat of disaster in Gorontalo City will continue to increase. Igrima underlined that the continuous degradation of water catchment areas is making the city vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Urban city and land degradation

Gorontalo City is the ground zero in the development of Gorontalo Province and has been characterized by continuous urbanization and urban land degradation. With a surface of 79.03 square kilometers and a population of 198,539 in 2020, Gorontalo city has seen significant infrastructure development that has changed the face of the city.

This urbanization has spurred migration from villages into the city and significantly contributed to the uptick in population grow rate. Data from the Gorontalo Statistics Agency shows in 1990-2000, the city’s  population growth rate reached 1.20 percent annually, in 2000-2010 the  figure rose to 2.93 percent and in 2010 -2020 it slowed down to 0.95 percent.

Data from the Gorontalo Statistical Agency also shows that land degradation was progressing from year to year. In 2019, for example, the city still had 828 hectares of irrigated rice fields, and in 2020 the total area is down to 795 hectares.

Gorontalo City had 180 hectares of other non-irrigated fields in 2019 but only 145 hectares were left the following year. By 2020, the city no longer has plantation areas and only less than four hectares of non-rice agricultural land remained.

The rapid land degradation in Gorontalo City is allegedly driving climate change, triggering more disasters. Land degradation also has an impact on changes in climatic parameters in Gorontalo City such as temperature increases, rainfall intensity, and relative humidity.

This is explained more in the research by Faisal Dunggio and Irwan Wunarlan titled “Pengaruh Alih Fungsi Lahan Terhadap Perubahan Iklim di Kota Gorontalo” (Impact of Land Conversion on Climate Change in Gorontalo City) published by Jurnal Teknik of the Faculty of Technology of the Gorontalo state university in 2013.

The research also said there was a strong correlation between land conversion into housing estates, government offices, and commercial facilities, with the rise of temperature experienced by the city. The conversion into government offices, housing, education spaces, and commercial facilities, also partially affected the humidity level in the urban areas.

Above: Rice fields (blue) and agricultural lands (yellow), in hectares, left in Gorontalo City. Source: Gorontalo Statistics Agency. Graphics: Sarjan Lahay.

Yurita Walangadi, the head of the agriculture department of the Gorontalo City Office for Fishery and Agriculture, said that the authority plans to retain 430 of the remaining 795 hectares of rice fields to be used as water catchment areas for sustainable food agriculture.

“This needs great attention. It will not only affect production levels. We will retain those rice fields as catchment areas because the number of available land in the city is dwindling by the day,” he said on October 9, 2021.

This effort by the Gorontalo City administration he said, is in line with Law number 41 of 2009 on the Protection of Sustainable Agricultural Land.

All regions, he said, must provide some land that would not be converted for other purposes for at least 20 years. “The Regional Spatial Plan  (LP2B) has been signed together with the Office of Public Works and People’s Housing, and covers the  430 hectares in the Kota Timur, Sipatanah and Kota Utara subdistricts,” he said.

Iqrima said further that land degradation can also affect sea level rise which leads to flooding in the city. Diminishing water catchment areas due to continuous land degradation, is leading to land subsidence and making the sea level higher than the land area, a process he said is taking course in the country’s capital, Jakarta.

“When spatial planning is not doing its job to control the pressure of rapid urbanization and all its bad impacts, the city would grow uncontrollably and sustainable development would fail,” Iqrima said.

Gorontalo City, he added, according to the non-profit research organization Climate Central is among Indonesian coastal cities that are predicted to be under water by 2050 caused by sea level rise.

Above: Land conversion in Gorontalo City from 2000 to 2020. Source: Google Earth. Visualisation: Sarjan Lahay.

Mitigation and adaptation?

Tata Mustasya, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Climate and Energy Campaigner, said that climate change triggers in urban areas are the result of reduced water catchment and land areas. Tata believes cities are key areas in tackling climate change.

However urbanization often champions infrastructure development and economic growth, sidelining the environmental and social aspects.

Rice fields and water sources turned into settlement areas and buildings. All this Tata said is really affecting the quality of the environment in Gorontalo City.

Tata reinforces predicted threats that befall Gorontalo City, including its sinking, if there are no mitigation and adaptation measures taken immediately. The Gorontalo City administration, together with the central government, should be more active in their efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Discussions and discourses on how to deal with the impacts of climate change are only taking place in central government while studies have shown that cities and coastal cities, like Gorontalo City, are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“Residents in the regions are the ones who will feel the immediate impacts of climate change,” Tata said.

Romi Rauf, Head of the Natural Resources Conservation Section at the Gorontalo City Environment Office, admitted that he is not too focused on the prevention of climate change impacts, adding that no budget was allocated for that purpose.

“We only have a program to plant trees along the roads of the city of Gorontalo. We are also maintaining existing trees,” Romi said on September 23.

Romi added that his office is currently managing 27 open green spaces in the city and made an acknowledgement of land degradation in the city.

What will be the fate of Gorontalo City in the future? This will entirely depend on the mitigation and adaptation actions taken.

This story is part of the “Environmental Story Grant” program organized in partnership by Ekuatorial and the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ), and was first published in Indonesian by Mongabay Indonesia on 14 October 2021.

About the writer

Sarjan Lahay is a freelance journalist in Gorontalo, a province on the island of Sulawesi which is often referred to as Serambi Madina. He started his journalistic career in 2018, by becoming a reporter...

There are no comments yet. Leave a comment!

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.