Thursday, February 29, 2024

Sinking Cities: The Houses on Stilts

By Franciss Nikole Elli | March 5, 2021

Jakarta is sinking

The slow and gradual rise of sea level on the coastal areas of Jakarta looms in the threat of putting residents at risk. Historical maps show how much the water level has increased through the decades. This city’s problem is mainly caused by one factor: groundwater pumping. The restricted access to clean, piped water pushes residents to pump water underground. With millions of Jakartans pumping water underground, the aquifers and the ground above it collapsed. The collapse is further fueled by the sprawling city as more and more patches of soil are covered in concrete. Rainwater cannot seep into the soil and this creates unwanted flooding among areas near the coast.

Manila is next

Our country’s very own capital is not spared by the perils of sinking. The coastal areas that surround Manila Bay are also at risk of rising water levels. Manila is sinking at 4-6 centimeters per year. By 2060, the simulation shows that Manila’s land will sink two meters, and in 2110, four to ten meters. 

As early as the 1960s, the population boom of the nation’s capital contributed to the shortage of piped water which pushed the residents to pump wells underground. Similar to Jakarta, this practice ballooned and led the government to impose a moratorium prohibiting groundwater pumping in 2004; but, authorities claim that despite the ban, there are still undocumented illegal groundwater pumping until this day. 

The problem stretches to Bulacan

The Manila Bay does not only touch the shores of Manila, Pasay, Parañaque, Las Piñas, and Navotas of the National Capital Region. It expands to the surrounding provinces of Bataan, Pampanga, Cavite, and most especially, Bulacan.

In Sitio Pariahan of Bulacan, we witness a chapel submerged in the river of what was once a concrete land. Benedicta Espiritu, a resident, recounts the memories of how the barangay once looked through the photos taken decades ago. The plausible reasons behind the fast land subsidence in Bulacan are the rapid sea-level rise and the disappearance of mangrove forests in the area.

The Houses on Stilts

For the cities Jakarta and Manila, we see the similarities of the problems that are taking place. Pushed by the industrialization of urban areas, population growth increases. And with this increase, access to clean piped water becomes restricted. Residents are left with no choice but to pump water underground. Multiply this practice to millions and the city sinks. Residents now live in hazard as they build houses on stilts, made from makeshift driftwood and tarpaulins. During monsoon seasons or when typhoons frequent the Pacific, these residents are at risk of flooding and drowning.

Seawalls and Makeshifts

The millions and billions of budget allotted for seawalls and other government projects seem hopeless. For Jakarta, a resident tells Vox that the seawall projects serve no good purpose when each year as the sea level rises– authorities keep piling just to separate the land from the sea. The residents call for better solutions than these seawalls.

In Manila, Architect Felino Palafox Jr. suggests that government offices be moved to the countryside to lessen the “attractiveness” of Metro Manila. He also proposes an adaptive architecture for a mega city like Manila. He shares his proposal of a condominium for socialized housing for the poor. The condominium’s basement has an open design to prepare for floods. He further explains the “vertical gardens” where the residents can plant ampalaya or tomatoes.


The residents of Jakarta and Manila shall continue to build and rebuild their houses on stilts when they are left on their own. Climate change is real, and its effects are becoming worse at an exponential rate. While governments and authorities continue to create “band-aid” solutions for these permanent problems, everyone is at risk to succumb to the ill effects of strong typhoons, rapid sea-level rise, and increasing land subsidence. As governments gear towards industrialization and urbanization, the urban settlers remain at the hem of mercy. How much are we willing to risk in the name of “progress”?


CNA Insider. (2020). Asia’s Sinking Cities: Manila | Insight | Full Episode [YouTube Video]. In YouTube.

Vox. (2021). Why Jakarta is sinking [YouTube Video]. In YouTube.


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