Time for the Indonesian government to decide whether Jakarta sinks or swims

Time is running out for Jakarta. The Indonesian government must act to either move its capital or revive the sinking city.

By John Pennington

Jakarta is returning to the sea. It could sink in less than a decade. Discussions about moving Indonesia’s capital are not new. They are now becoming more pressing. Indonesia would not be setting a precedent by making a change. Myanmar recently switched from Yangon to Naypyidaw, and Egypt is planning to do the same.

If officials were choosing a site for a capital city today, Jakarta would not be a contender. What are the options for President Joko Widodo? Where could Indonesia’s new capital be? Moreover, what are the benefits and drawbacks of moving?

Indonesia must address the issue

Politicians must consider moving the capital. Rising sea levels are enveloping Jakarta. City-dwellers are illegally digging wells and draining aquifers which exacerbates the problem.

It is prone to regular floods. It sits on volatile tectonic plates; earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are constant threats. Jakarta has the world’s worst traffic. Congestion costs the country an estimated IDR150 trillion (US$11 billion) per year. Planners produced a poor layout. It lacks an adequate sewerage system, and overcrowding is a massive problem.

Furthermore, Jakarta ranks as the world’s worst city for women. It is expensive for expats and inhospitable for travellers.

Palangkaraya appears to be Widodo’s choice

Planners identified several options as potential new capitals or administrative centres for Indonesia. Widodo recently championed the cause of Palangkaraya, on Borneo. He has stated that he would consider other nearby locations. Other options include Jonggol, Jakarta Bay and Pontianak.

Source: Seasia

Moving the capital would boost other cities, as businesses would head out of the capital. Jakarta would no longer dominate. Moving the capital should ease chronic overcrowding and congestion in Jakarta.

There are significant challenges to moving the capital

Jakarta may be wholly unsuited as a modern capital city, but there is no clear alternative. Elsewhere in the country, infrastructure development has been slow. Jakarta’s infrastructure is far superior. The capital is better developed than the proposed options. Moving the capital would cause significant – and costly – infrastructure development. That would force the government to make cuts in other areas.

The costs of moving agencies and employees out of Jakarta and into a new capital would also be expensive. Indonesia required direct sea access to major cities, but Palangkaraya has none. Neither do other proposed alternatives such as Kertajati or Jonggol.

The ecological case for moving the capital out of Jakarta is clear. Although developing Palangkayara would increase deforestation, it is safer than Jakarta. Palangkayara is further from the most volatile tectonic plates. “With minimal risk of natural disaster, to the extent that it is possible in Indonesia…we are mostly looking in Kalimantan,” confirmed National Development Planning (BAPPENAS) Minister Bambang Brodjenegro.

Officials could not overcome political impasse and conflict to implement reform. Having the capital on mainland Borneo is a sensitive issue as Brunei and Malaysia are nearby. Analysts estimate a five-year timeframe to move. This timeline is unrealistic.

Jakarta is by no means a lost cause

If moving the capital was easy, Indonesia would have done it by now. The many barriers may force the government to consider other options. One alternative is to redevelop Jakarta to bring it up to date. Shifting the capital may introduce chronic overcrowding and flooding to the new site.

Jakarta’s infrastructure is already more advanced than elsewhere. There is still an enormous amount of work outstanding. The government would need to develop better transport logistics, flood protection and sewerage. It could build further inland or reclaim land from the sea to the north.

There may be a third option. The government could leave Jakarta intact but create a new administrative centre. This new centre would handle some, or all, of Jakarta’s current workload. Building this centre would mirror what Malaysia did with Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur.

Time is running out for the Government to act

The good news for the government is that it has options available. It can no longer wait and ignore the issue. If the government does nothing, Jakarta will sink, and a new capital will become a necessity. The government must act.

To his credit, Widodo moved the process forward. He commissioned the survey into sites such as Palangkaraya. He must follow them up. He may be reluctant to commit one year out from his next election campaign.

Former governor Basuki Tjahaha Purnama managed to address some of Jakarta’s issues. His work suggests the option of keeping Jakarta as the capital is still on the table.

Moving the capital is a lengthy process. As Widodo tweeted last year, “Deep calculations are necessary so as to guarantee that the relocation will be really beneficial.” All concerned parties will need to agree on a location. A move requires careful planning and strategic implementation. These processes are too time-consuming to leave any longer. Jakarta’s future depends on what the government does next and when.