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Responding to sea level rise: challenges and opportunities to govern coastal adaptation strategies in Indonesia


Coastal cities in parts of Indonesia are subject to many compounding pressures, including increasing population and industrial agglomeration, and are experiencing greater levels of relative sea level rise (SLR) given the impacts of climate change and large-scale subsidence. The sustainability and resilience of many coastal cities is being tested as they struggle to integrate many socio-technical, political and ecological dependencies within the city with the surrounding coastal environment. Governments at all levels have implemented a diversity of strategies to arrest relative sea level rise, but given the ‘wicked’ nature of this problem, both policy solutions, proposed and implemented, have rarely achieved the outcomes needed. To a large extent, this is attributed to the ineffective governance framework which has led to policy failure, with multiple actors being motivated by different legislative, political, financial and social interests who prioritize specific beneficiaries and solutions. This article examines the governance challenges associated with sea level rise through case studies in Semarang and Demak, Indonesia. It highlights significant barriers that impede effective coastal adaptation including (1) the policy and motivations of differing levels of government. This includes a national government that emphasizes mega-infrastructure projects, a regional government that lacks the capacity and resources to address groundwater extraction and a local government that seeks low-cost hybrid engineering solutions given their financial and budgetary constraints; and (2) ipso facto a lack of coordination across scale, jurisdiction and sectors. This article also highlights several opportunities for community and civil society participation in nature-based solution (NBS) practices and implementation. This article finds that effective adaptation strategies in coastal areas require an integrated governance framework to improve policy implementation and coordination.


Addressing SLR needs coordination of governance of all levels among sectors and between jurisdictions affected.

Appropriate measures need to combine top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Local governments lack the capacity to address SLR and land subsidence problems.

Overlapping and conflicting laws hinder effective implementation in addressing SLR.

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Fig. 1

Source: Google Earth, 2020

Fig. 2

Source: Wetland international Indonesia, 2022

Fig. 3

Source: Google Earth and PUPR Ministry, 2018


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This research was supported by INGSA Research Associate Grant 2018–2019 and AMINEF Fulbright visiting scholar 2019–2020, HOST CUNY, Brooklyn College, Political Science, NY.

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Correspondence to Laely Nurhidayah.

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Nurhidayah, L., Davies, P., Alam, S. et al. Responding to sea level rise: challenges and opportunities to govern coastal adaptation strategies in Indonesia. Maritime Studies 21, 339–352 (2022).

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  • Adaptation options
  • Wicked problem
  • Sea level rise
  • Governance
  • Nature-based solutions