Ice caps are melting, seas are rising, and densely populated cities worldwide are threatened by floodwaters, especially in Southeast Asia. Building on Borrowed Time is a relevant and powerful ethnography of how people in Semarang, Indonesia, on the north coast of Java, are dealing with this existential challenge driven by global warming. In addition to antiflooding infrastructure breaking down, vast areas of cities like Semarang and Jakarta are rapidly sinking, affecting the very foundations of urban life: toxic water oozes through the floors of houses, bridges are submerged, traffic is interrupted.

As Lukas Ley shows, the residents of Semarang are constantly engaged in maintaining their homes and streets, trying to live through a slow-motion disaster shaped by the interacting temporalities of infrastructural failure, ecological deterioration, and urban development. He casts this predicament through the temporal lens of a “meantime,” a managerial response that means a constant enduring of the present rather than progress toward a better future—a “chronic present.”

Building on Borrowed Time takes us to a place where a flood crisis has already arrived—where everyday residents are not waiting for the effects of climate change but are in fact already living with it—and shows that life in coastal Southeast Asia is defined not by the temporality of climate science but by the lived experience of tidal flooding.

Lukas Ley is head of research group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle.

Alize Arıcan is a Postdoctoral Associate at Rutgers University’s Center for Cultural Analysis. She is an anthropologist whose research focuses on urban renewal, futurity, care, and migration in Istanbul, Turkey. Her work has been featured in Current AnthropologyCity & SocietyJOTSARadical Housing Journal, and entanglements.

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