Jakarta is sinking. Who has to move?

Indonesia are moving to a new capital city - but what of Jakarta's 10 million inhabitants?
17 November 2020

Interview with 

Kian Goh, UCLA


A view over Jakarta.


Indonesia are currently planning to move their capital city from Jakarta to a proposed city that doesn’t yet exist! This isn't the first time this has been done - for example, Brazil constructed its capital Brasilia as a planned city in the 50s - but the environmental pressures here are new. Because according to UCLA planning expert Kian Goh, Jakarta is literally sinking into the sea! Kian explained to Phil Sansom...

Kian - Jakarta floods chronically. It floods every year, and every five to seven years or so there's a massive inundation that covers about a third of the city. And this flooding is getting worse because of rapid and severe land subsidence; parts of the city are literally sinking at up to about 10 centimetres a year. And this sinking is primarily caused by the overpumping of groundwater, which leads to soil compaction. This is made worse by rampant urban development, where we see more and more of the ground in the city covered by asphalt and concrete, leaving less and less permeable surfaces for rainwater to seep back in. The ground is sinking, and it is also becoming less permeable. On top of that, because of climate change, sea levels in the Jakarta Bay are rising; and precipitation is becoming more and more uncertain due to these factors. And so all this is basically a recipe for catastrophic flooding in a city that already faces other long term problems such as congestion and stark inequality.

Phil - Given such a perfect storm of horrible factors that you described, are Indonesia planning to move everyone in Jakarta to a different place? And if not, what are the people left behind... what are they going to do?

Kian - That is a key question, a really excellent one, because I think many people assumed that they would, like, pick up Jakarta and move it to another island; and that's just not the case. Jakarta is a city of about 10 million people in the capital district proper, and it's been the centre of economic growth in the country and region since Dutch colonial times. So if the national government does build a new capital on the island of Borneo as it plans, it will certainly move the administrative and political functions of the national government, along with some services and support functions. But Jakarta will remain the population and economic centre of the country for the foreseeable future. And so what happens in the city? It's projected that about four and a half million people live in places that will face catastrophic flooding around 2030 or so. And many of these are poor urban residents who live in the informal 'kampung' settlements; these are essentially urban villages along rivers and canals, and along the coastline. Many of them may well have to move, not necessarily to a new city, but towards more safe and sustainable living conditions within the city. And the big question really is how the city, whether or not it's the seat of national government, addresses the flooding problem in a way that is just and equitable for its most vulnerable and marginalised residents.

Phil - Over the next, what, 50-100 years, we're projected huge amounts of sea level rise. I can't remember the figures, but something like up to seven meters at the worst estimate. In that situation you need a little bit more than better living conditions, so what are people going to do?

Kian - Well, the city has been trying various plans, including ongoing efforts to dredge and widen the canals and rivers, as well as much more ambitious plans. Some years ago, city officials along with a group of Dutch consultants proposed a large scale master plan, also known as the 'Giant Sea Wall'. In its most ambitious iteration when it was proposed, it called for essentially a new city, shaped like a garuda - which is a mythical eagle that is the national symbol for Indonesia - to be built on landfill in the Jakarta Bay. This new city would create massive retention ponds behind it, between the Sea Wall city and the existing city, that could be pumped low enough so that the rivers and canals in the city drain into it. And this ambitious plan has faced a lot of protests, often by poor urban residents who live along the coastlines, who are afraid that such a plan would destroy the mangroves, destroy the fisheries, and displace them. More recent iterations have really trimmed down its grand ambitions, and the city still hopes that some of these initiatives will address the worst of the flooding in the coming years. But as you say, when we think about 50-100 years down the line, we need to do more than that.


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