Is relocating Indonesia’s capital feasible?

Borneo is one of the few remaining places on earth where orangutans survive in t

Borneo is one of the few remaining places on earth where orangutans survive in the wild. The species’ survival is at significant threat from deforestation and the spread of cane sugar plantations. Photo credit: Alician2010/Pixabay.

Jakarta has a population of 10 million and is rapidly sinking. The Indonesian Government announced plans to relocate the country’s capital to the island of Borneo, but will it improve living and environmental conditions?

Built on a marshland that sits below sea level, Jakarta has long been prone to inundation. However, with a population that recently surged over 10 million, many say the city’s rapid development and subsequent environmental degradation mean it risks being completely submerged by 2050. 

In response to this risk, the Indonesian Government recently announced its plan to relocate the country’s capital to the island of Borneo, meaning Jakarta would no longer be the country’s bureaucratic and administrative centre.

But would a move improve living and environmental conditions for those living in Jakarta? Three University of Sydney academics who specialise in Southeast Asia and humanitarian engineering discuss.

History could be repeated

"History repeats itself in Indonesia", warns Professor Adrian Vickers , an Indonesian cultural history expert who researches the region as part of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

"In the 1960s, a returning communist leader advocated to Indonesia’s president, Sukarno, that the capital should be moved from overcrowded Jakarta to the centre of the island of Borneo.

"With Soviet funding, Sukarno started work on the new city of Palangkaraya. He never got further than a highway and a roundabout, but President Jokowi of Indonesia has revived the idea," he explained.

"Will this city on the equator be the new capital, Indonesia’s Brasilia or Canberra, or perhaps Naypyidaw? There are practical reasons for and against such a move.

"Indonesia’s civil service and parliament would probably be resistant, as this would separate the capital from the business centre. Nevertheless, Jakarta has some of the worst traffic jams and air quality in the world, so such a solution makes sense," he said.

Relocation won’t solve Jakarta’s environmental issues

Environmental and humanitarian engineer from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering and Southeast Asia Centre, Dr  Petr Matous , says the lack of accessibility to clean drinking water in Jakarta has been exercerbated by inappropriate infrastructure and a mismanagement of essential services. 

"Setting up a new capital in Borneo will not solve Jakarta’s environmental problems and will replicate them if things are not done differently. A large proportion of Jakarta’s residents lack access to water, not because of insufficient environmental resources, but because they live in informal settlements known as ’kampungs’.

"Most kampungs do not have legal access to water, which means residents can only obtain water through informal vendors whose practices often damage the water network, causing large losses and environmental degradation," said Dr Matous.

"Many people are forced to rely on deeper and deeper illegal water wells that further contribute to the depletion of water resources and the sinking of the city. Because of Jakarta’s largely concrete and asphalt infrastructure, the underlying aquifer does not get replenished easily," he said.

The humaniterian engineer believes development of a new capital could lead to significant environmental degradation in Borneo, unless sufficient safeguards are put in place.

"An additional worry is the likely environmental impact on the new region, particularly as Indonesia’s population booms. Agricultural productivity and excessive deforestation are two major issues in Indonesia, both of which contribute to people leaving their unproductive farms to live in the cities.

"Without sufficient environmental protections in place, the rapid development of a new urban area in Borneo could be very risky," he said.

Starting from scratch not so easy

With research focused on post-disaster resettlement programs in South East Asia, humanitarian engineer from the School of Civil Engineering Dr  Aaron Opdyke  believes the proposed move has been spurred by political motivations and that disaster risk has been misunderstood.

"The Indonesian Government’s arguments for the move centre on finding a location that is free from threat of natural hazards that Jakarta frequently experiences, such as earthquakes and floods. In 2018, Indonesia accounted for nearly half of the global deaths from disasters," said Dr Opdyke.

"Too often though, governments jump to relocate settlements expecting that they can cut disaster losses by just reducing exposure to hazards. We see repeatedly that disasters are often distorted by policy makers for political gain, without truly understanding the drivers of disaster risk," he said.

"Vulnerabilities of our infrastructure, economies, and social systems often have a much larger role to play in disaster risk creation - factors that are rarely solved by starting anew.

"The scale of the problems facing Jakarta are no doubt pressing, but rather than embracing the seductive simplicity of starting with a blank canvas, we need to recognise the complexities that don’t vanish.

"While the allure of better planning from a clean slate might be tempting to address current stresses, the reality might look very different."


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