Preferring to neither sink or swim Jokowi pulls the plug on Jakarta: Asean’s sinking cities (video)

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Last week the head of Indonesia’s National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas), Bambang Brodjonegoro, announced that the government is committed to moving the nation’s capital from Jakarta in Java. While Mr Brodjonegoro did not specify where the new capital will be located, options floated in the past include Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia’s largest island and where former president Sukarno considered setting up a new capital in 1957, and Jonggol in West Java. Vice president Jusuf Kalla is said to prefer Mamuju, the capital of West Sulawesi Province.

Of the three Jonggol would appear to be the most unlikely. Past comments indicate that when the move comes it will not be to somewhere else on Java. In fact, the official reason being given for the move is that there is too much imbalance between development on Java compared with other Indonesian islands. There is however another reason. Jakarta is (not so slowly) sinking, while sea levels are rising. At the current rate large segments of Jakarta could be underwater within a decade.

The mean sea level in Jakarta Bay is rising by up to 0.57cm (0.22 inch) annually, while the city is also sinking at about 7.5cm (2.95 inch) per year on average; its coastal neighbourhoods are sinking even faster, at a rate of 25cm (9.84 inch) per year.

While moving a capital city is a slow and expensive undertaking, Indonesia President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) could very well be remembered in history as a progressive leader whose foresight saw the Indonesian capital saved from the effects of climate change, when other governments are ferrying their civil servants to work by boat.

Climate change only part of the problem

Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, is said to be once again being looked at for the new Indonesia capital after having been nominated in 1957 by former president Sukarno
Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, is said to be once again being looked at for the new Indonesia capital after having been nominated in 1957 by former president Sukarno Google Maps

Recent research shows that planning now to relocate may be a wise strategy. Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and Jakarta could all be underwater within the next ten years.

While the rise in sea levels brought on by climate change is a well-publicised threat, unsustainable urban development practices are equally damaging and concerning.

In all three of Asean’s sinking cities groundwater extraction is necessary to maintain an adequate supply of potable water; this causes the land underneath the cities to sink, a phenomenon known as land subsidence. High-rise developments only further compress the already unstable land.

As vacant land in the three cities has become increasingly scarce – and expensive – natural drainage channels have been filled in for construction – sometimes legally, but often not.

Many of Bangkok’s khlongs have been paved over for roads, while some have morphed into golf courses, or apartment blocks; a luxury district has been built on what was once a wetland in Ho Chi Minh City.

During the monsoon season rainwater that once drained into these canals or wetlands finds its natural pathway obstructed, flooding streets and buildings instead.

The combined effects of climate change, land subsidence, and elimination of drainage systems mean that these cities are slipping into the sea faster than they are growing.

While Jakarta is the most at risk with some 40 per cent of the city below sea level, the Thailand capital of Bangkok is not far behind. More than half of Bangkok sits less than 0.5 metres (about 1.6 ft) above sea level.

According to the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), the city is sinking at up to 3cm (1.18 inch) a year, while a 2010 Joint Thailand-Europe Research Study (JTERS), found that the water level in the Gulf of Thailand is rising at up to 0.40cm (0.16 inches) annually.

Most of central Bangkok, including Bangkok International Airport, sits less than 0.5m above sea level
Most of central Bangkok, including Bangkok International Airport, sits less than 0.5m above sea level Royal Thai Survey Department/ BKKBase

In Ho Chi Minh City the situation is just as dire. Sea levels off the coast of Vietnam are rising at 0.29cm (0.11 inch) per year, and from 2006 to 2010 Ho Chi Minh City sank on average 0.80cm (0.31 inch) per year.

In response some city residents in Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta are raising the floor of their houses annually to avoid increasingly higher floodwaters.

However, these strategies save only individual households from sinking, not entire cities. Those who can’t afford the high cost are set to see their investment in their home liquidated in more ways than one.

The vital role that these cities play to their respective countries, and the region’s, economic stability means their future can not be left up to fate. In Thailand the Bangkok metropolitan area contributed 30 per cent to 2014 Thailand GDP. In the same year, Ho Chi Minh City contributed 21 per cent to Vietnam’s GDP, while Jakarta contributed 13 per cent to 2012 Indonesia GDP.

Indonesia isn’t the only country to consider relocating its capital city; the topic has been flagged periodically in Thailand; while Myanmar actually did so in 2005, building the city of Naypyidaw from scratch and moving its government operations there from Yangon.

Relocation a temporary respite for Jakartans only

Beachgoers flee from rising sea water on Koh Sama, Thailand. Rising sea levels are set to have a significant impact on Thailand’s ‘tourist islands’
Beachgoers flee from rising sea water on Koh Samed, Thailand. Rising sea levels are set to have a significant impact on Thailand’s ‘tourist islands’ Courtesy Wyn Ellis

With hundreds of thousands of civil servants and their families likely to be offered transfers to the new location, Jakarta Governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat has welcomed the initiative, pointing to lower traffic congestion and cleaner air as two of the benefits.

However, while the relocation will provide some temporary benefits to Jakartans, it will have little effect on the rate in which the city is sinking beneath the sea.

For Jakarta to gain even a modicum of respite from the speed with which climate change is bearing down on it, it must dramatically reduce the amount of water it is pulling from beneath the ground.

This is no better reflected than in a 2015 study by researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (TIT). The study found that while a three-meter (about 9.9ft) high dyke would be sufficient at the present to prevent floods in Jakarta, if land subsidence continues at its current rate the dyke would be completely ineffective by 2040.

Similarly a 2015 report by Dutch water research institute Deltares found that since strict regulations capping the proportion of groundwater permitted in Bangkok City’s water supply at 10 per cent were introduced in 1977 land subsidence has slowed significantly.

However, despite the proven efficacy of stopping groundwater extraction, the practice continues unabated in all three of Asean’s sinking cities, despite all having introduced restrictions to curb groundwater extraction. In Indonesia it easy to understand why. About 40 percent of Jakarta’s residents are not connected to the city’s water supply leaving them no choice but to rely on groundwater. Additionally, although government buildings have access to piped water, many still draw their water from underground aquifers.

In Ho Chi Minh City a lack of coordination between relevant government agencies is hampering effective water management, while in Bangkok corruption, lax enforcement, inadequate monitoring, and greed all have a role to play.

Flawed solutions

Walking home through calf-high water could still be in the future of Jakatans, Bangkokians and Vietnamese if depletion of groundwater is not curtailed
Walking home through calf-high water could still be in the future of Jakartans, Bangkokians, and Vietnamese if depletion of groundwater is not curtailed. Seika

Thus, most discussion on saving Asean’s sinking cities have focused on adapting to increasing floods; pumping water from one flooded location to another, and then from there to somewhere else.

Water management firms from the Netherlands, where about a quarter of the land lies below sea level, have been sharing their water management expertise with officials in all three of Asean’s sinking cities. Multibillion-dollar seawall designs, such as Jakarta’s Great Garuda and Bangkok’s Wetropolis, have been in the pipeline for years.

However, of all the proposals to rescue Asean’s sinking cities, only the plan to move Indonesia’s capital has reached more than the initial publicity stage.

It is easy to see why. For one, the plans are flawed: The Wetropolis project has been dismissed as unrealistic, while the Great Garuda is highly likely to wreak even more havoc on Jakarta’s environment. Moreover, Asean’s sinking cities lack the funding and government efficacy required to fully implement the Dutch firms’ recommendations.

Despite the dire warnings neither Vietnam nor Thailand seem overly concerned, despite the many historic buildings such as the Grand Palace and numerous stupas containing Buddha relicts that Thailand will need to relocate if they are not to be lost to the sea.

Land prices

With Bangkok land prices currently about US$18,733 per square meter (about 10.76sq.ft) any decision to move the capital would likely have as big an economic impact on the country as the 1997 Asian financial crisis, totally destroying the wealth of more than a few prominent Thai society families. Among those with a big investment in Bangkok land is the the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) with some 1,343ha (3,318 acres) of prime Bangkok land worth about $251.584 billion.

Similarly in Vietnam where all land is owned by the state and leased to private corporations and individuals, maintaining land prices and rental incomes is an important consideration.  In 2015 one square meter (10.76 sq.ft) of land in Ho Chi Minh City’s central business district was valued at US$7,600.

Willson Kalip, Indonesia country head for international real estate firm Knight Frank, said that while the idea of relocating the Indonesia capital is good, it will take a long time to properly execute.

Noting that the move did not have the support of all of the business community, Mr Kalip said the idea was still subject to “many factors including the economy, social, business flow, funding, politics, and more.”

Water could be flowing through the grounds of Bangkok's Grand Palace in less than a decade
Water could be flowing through the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace in less than a decade Yakuzakorat

While the effect the announcement will have on Jakarta property prices may not be felt for some time, Mr Kalip said whichever city is chosen for the new Indonesia capital is going to see rapid increases in land prices and the opening up of many new opportunities.

While Governor Hidayat might be pleased at the notion of the government moving out of Jakarta, with the national capital relocated to some far off distant location the pressure on Indonesia lawmakers to spend inconceivable amounts of money defending Jakarta from the effects of climate change is unlikely be as intense.

Likewise, lawmakers are unlikely to find large groups of Jakartans making the lengthy journey to protest in front of the new parliament about jetskis racing along Jalan Mangga Dua Raya, or having to wade knee-deep to and from work in what is being billed as Indonesia’s new business and finance centre.



Feature video Michigan Engineering






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