Will relocating the capital of Indonesia solve Jakarta’s problems?

Life in the Indonesian capital is getting worse with every passing year, so much so that the government of this south-east Asian country announced, this summer, that it plans to start building a new capital in 2020, in the east of the island of Borneo. The aim is to ease some of the problems that have spiralled out of control in Jakarta, such as the traffic, the pollution and the sinking of the land (around four metres in the last three decades), giving up the country’s economic and administrative centre, home to some 10.5 million people, to start anew elsewhere.

It is not the first time such plans have been mentioned. The idea has been around since the time of Sukarno – the country’s first president after it gained independence from the Netherlands – who had already suggested relocating the capital, back in the 1950s. The task of moving the government’s operating base to the island of Borneo was passed on to Suharto (who was in power from 1968 to 1998), but neither he nor the four presidents that followed were able to bring the plan to fruition. Joko Widodo, who was re-elected president in May, is nonetheless adamant that he will be the man who finally manages to do it and says he is determined to fulfil his promise.

Widodo has announced that the new capital (the future centre of government) will be located in a jungle area in the east of Borneo island – famous for being home to orangutans and one of the largest coal reserves on the planet. The move will be a difficult and expensive task, costing an estimated 466 trillion Indonesian rupiah (some €30 billion, or US$33 billion) which will have to come from the federal coffers, the sale of assets and public and private investments.

When Jakarta was founded by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, the city was designed to accommodate some 500,000 people. Today its population is 21 times that number and rises to around 30 million when adding the metropolitan area.

Jakarta, located in the northwest of the island of Java, is one of the world’s busiest metropolises, where government investment in public transport has been lacking for years, held back by poor governance and corruption.

According to the World Economic Forum, Jakarta is also one of the world’s fastest sinking cities (compared to other coastal megacities). Some of its districts, such as North Jakarta (which has sunk by 2.5 metres in the last decade), could be below sea level by 2050.

The problem in this city, built on marshes, in a delta area, and through which rivers and tributaries flow, is that its residents use too much groundwater (from the acquifers), either because of the inadequate public supply of piped water or because it is a cheaper alternative. The excessive extraction of this groundwater is causing buildings and houses – that have multiplied at a dizzying rate in recent decades – to sink, a problem not helped by the ever more frequent floods.

Borneo, shielded from potential natural disasters

Widodo says he plans to create a ‘green’, ‘smart’ and ‘beautiful’ city in East Kalimantan – near the existing urban centres of Balikpapan and Samarinda, and so, in addition to being the new administrative centre, it may also be a base for innovation and renewable energy sectors. The megaproject still has to be ‘approved’ by geologists and geophysicists, among others, but, according to Widodo, works will be underway by the end of 2020.

The president has also explained that one of the reasons for choosing the island of Borneo is that it is in a safe area, away from sites prone to natural disasters, unlike the island of Java – where Jakarta is located – and others such as Bali and Lombok, places where the locals have been hit by tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the last two years. Aside from offering greater safety, shifting the capital to Borneo is also being pitched as a way of diversifying the economy and redistributing the population (some 264 million people) in a more balanced way.

Widodo’s plan to relocate the capital is not novel in itself. Several countries have done the same in recent history, building administrative centres from scratch. Nigeria did it in the 1980s (from Lagos to Abuja), Brazil in the 1960s (from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia), and Turkey in the 1920s (from Istanbul to Ankara), for example. More recently, several other countries, taking advantage of scientific and technological advances as well as sustainability goals, have launched the construction of ‘cities of the future’, with sustainable development as part of their DNA. Examples include Forest City (Malaysia), the ‘smart city’ of Belmont in Arizona (United States), and the industrial city of Duqm (Oman).

As Australian academic Wendy Steele nonetheless points out in an article in The Conversation, the ambitions of these projects, which include the planning of green and walkable cities, high-speed internet embedded in the urban fabric, etc., have not yet risen to the challenge of balancing innovation and the ‘public right to the city’ (in these newly created places). This imbalance has already led to notorious failures. One such case is the Minnesota Experimental City. Despite receiving considerable financial and government backing, this ‘top-down’ project failed to win public support.

As Mark Wilson, professor and associate director of the Michigan State University School of Planning, Design and Construction, tells Equal Times, a new capital may take decades to establish itself as a real and attractive option. And Jakarta seems to be racing against the clock.

Capital cities contain residential neighbourhoods, clubs, cultural entities and schools. Any new capital, Wilson points out, must “provide the same benefits”, to encourage residents to make the move. The fact is that the elite sees Borneo as a jungle resort with very little development.

The project, although purporting to be sustainable, has not been well received by environmental groups either. Greenpeace Indonesia has expressed concern about the impact of construction on the forests and the orangutan population in Borneo. Logging and the expansion of agriculture add to the list of problems, not to mention the tensions surrounding potential land expropriations.

As James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, explains, no matter how determined the president is to relocate the capital, “his project needs the approval of parliament and he hasn’t secured it yet”. The government is currently preparing a bill to seek parliamentary approval, which it hopes to have ready by the first quarter of 2020. The final decisions will also fall largely on his successor, as Widodo will not be able to run for a third term and his presidency ends in 2024. So the project does not lie in his hands alone.

Several experts, such as Chin or Siwage Dharma Negara, co-coordinator of the Indonesian Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, tell Equal Times that moving the capital will not help matters in Jakarta either if no other concrete measures are taken (in relation to traffic management, pollution or water consumption, for example). The people who stay in Jakarta will continue to live as they do now.

For these academics, the city is not likely to be abandoned because, despite being dysfunctional, it will continue to be the centre of the country’s economic activity. What is more, the population will most likely continue to grow, as people will continue to go there in search of new opportunities.

For Negara, changing Jakarta’s course “requires a long-term policy and sufficient time to change the behaviour of the people” who live there. For Chin, the options are very limited. In his view, the population of Jakarta will have no alternative but to move further inland, because the city is going to sink.

This article has been translated from Spanish.