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Climate migration: floods displace villagers in Indonesia

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MONDOLIKO, Indonesia — All the crops had died and the farmed fish had escaped from their ponds. The only road to the village was flooded and the water kept rising, says Asiyah, 38, who, like many Indonesians, goes by just one name.

He knew that he had to leave his home on the north coast of Java, just as many other villagers had done months before. So about two years ago, after agonizing over her decision for months, she told her husband it was time to go and she started packing.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series exploring the lives of people around the world who have been forced to move due to rising sea levels, drought, scorching temperatures and other things caused or exacerbated due to climate change.

Home to some 145 million people and Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, Java is the world’s most populous island. Scientists say that parts of the island will be completely lost to the sea in the next few years.

Much has been written about the sinking capital, which is partially moving due to destructive floods. Other parts of the country with persistent flooding have received less attention.

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Some 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Jakarta, entire towns along the Java Sea are submerged in murky brown waters. Experts say rising sea levels and stronger tides as a result of climate change are among the causes. Gradual land subsidence and development are also to blame.

Mondoliko, where Asiyah is from, is one of those villages.

Asiyah smiles as she describes what Mondoliko was like when she was young: Lush green paddy fields, tall coconut palms and red chili bushes grew around the 200 houses people lived in. She and other children played on the local soccer field, watching for snakes. glide across the grass while butterflies flew through the air.

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“Everyone had land,” she says. “We were all able to grow up and have what we needed.”

But about 10 years ago, the water came, sporadically and a few inches high at first. Within a few years he became a constant presence. Unable to grow in salt water, crops and plants died. With no land as the water rose, the insects and animals disappeared.

Asiyah says that she and other villagers adapted as best they could: farmers traded their crops for fish ponds; people used earth or concrete to raise the floors of their houses above the water. Net fences were placed in the yards to catch the trash brought in by the tide.

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For seven years, Asiyah, her husband Aslori, 42, and their two children lived with the floods, the water level rising every year. But they also noticed changes: neighbors were abandoning their houses in search of drier land. The call to prayer at the village mosque fell silent. Even the new fish ponds became useless, the water rose so high that the fish jumped over the nets.

She remembers the day she decided they had to leave their home of a lifetime. Her father, who lived with them, had been battling bone cancer and prostate problems, and some days he was so frail he couldn’t take it. Her son was growing up and faced an increasingly difficult and waterlogged journey to school more than 2 miles (about 3 kilometers) away.

“I was worried when the road flooded: how can we go about our daily lives?” she remembers her that she asked herself. “Children cannot go to school or play with their friends. … We cannot live like this.”

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The rising flood water told her husband it was time to go.

Early one morning, in pouring rain, Asiyah and Aslori loaded what they could onto their boat: photos of their wedding and family, documents, and a large plastic container filled with kitchen utensils. She left her house for the last time, making the 3-mile drive to Semarang, where she had found an empty one-bedroom concrete apartment to rent.

The first night in her new apartment, Asiyah slept on the floor, trying to calm her distraught son.

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“I tried to make them understand that there was no other option. We can’t work and they can’t go to school if we stay in Mondoliko,” she says. “It’s uninhabitable.”

Asiyah confesses that while she comforted him, she also wanted to go home. But even if she wanted to go back, it would have been impossible: the road to the village had been flooded.

Others from Mondoliko have since left their homes. When The Associated Press visited the town in November 2021, 11 houses were still occupied. By July 2022, that number was down to five, as the town continues to be swallowed by the sea.

Asiyah and her fellow villagers are just a few of the 143 million people likely to be displaced by rising sea levels, drought, scorching temperatures and other climate catastrophes over the next 30 years, according to the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on the UN Climate Change published this year.

Some villagers in the region are still living in their flooded houses.

In Timbulsloko, about 2 miles (about 3 kilometers) from Asiyah village, houses have been fortified with raised floors and dirt walkways, causing people to duck as they pass through shortened doorways. Some residents of the town have received help from the local government, but many are still left without a dry place to sleep, fearful that a strong tide in the middle of the night will wash them out to sea.

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Adjusting to her new home has been an ongoing process, says Asiyah. Aslori still works as a fisherman near his house and brings in whatever waterlogged items he can.

In early September, on a day when the tide was especially low, Asiyah returned to the old house for the first time since she left. Months earlier, she had cried when she saw a picture of her house on a neighborhood chat group, the bridge that once led to the house completely washed away.

But while at home, she quietly flipped through old school books, saying her son’s name over and over as she carefully selected items like water bottles and a rusty gas cylinder to take to her new home.

Knowing that the tide would soon rise and that they might be stranded, Asiyah, Aslori, and the other former Mondoliko villagers who had come to collect items began the journey back to drier land.

“I miss home,” he says. “I never imagined it would become an ocean.”

Associated Press climate and environment coverage is supported by several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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