What does it take to relocate a country’s thriving capital city? A rising population and a sinking city, for starters.

The Indonesian Government has recently announced plans to move the country’s capital city from Jakarta to the island of Borneo – and the reasons are many. Jakarta, which was built on a marshland situated below sea level, has always been prone to inundation. With the city’s population crossing 10 million combined with the city’s rapid development and the ensuing environmental degradation, Jakarta is expected to be completely submerged by 2050.

The Indonesian Government, therefore, took a decision to relocate the capital city, reviving an earlier plan from the 1960s when the then president, Sukarno initiated work on the move with Soviet funds.

The latest decision by the Government under president Jokowi will mean Jakarta would no longer be the country's bureaucratic and administrative centre.

However, the question still remains whether the relocation will improve the living and environmental conditions of those living in Jakarta.

In a recent discussion, three University of Sydney academics who specialise in Southeast Asia and humanitarian engineering, weighed in on the issue.

Such a solution makes sense

Recalling Sukarno’s earlier unsuccessful efforts to relocate to the new city of Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo, professor Adrian Vickers says history is repeating itself in Indonesia.

“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," says Vickers, an Indonesian cultural history expert who researches the region as part of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

"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." 

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 blames the current lack of accessibility to clean drinking water in Jakarta on inappropriate infrastructure and mismanagement of essential services. He believes that relocation won’t solve the problems if things are only going to get replicated in the new capital city and not done differently.

Explaining the genesis of the problem, Matous says insufficient environmental resources are not the reason for a large proportion of Jakarta’s residents lacking access to water. This is because they don’t have legal access to water as they live in informal settlements known as ‘kampungs’. Residents of these settlements are forced to buy water from informal vendors whose practices often damage the water network, causing large losses and environmental degradation.

“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 says.

Matous observes that the 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."

Starting from a blank canvas not the solution

Dr Aaron Opdyke, a humanitarian engineer from the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, blames political motivations for the proposed relocation and believes that the disaster risk has been misunderstood.

Opdyke, whose research has focused on post-disaster resettlement programs in South East Asia, questions the rationale behind the Indonesian Government’s decision to move, which was based on finding a place free from the threat of natural hazards frequently experienced by Jakarta.

In 2018, Indonesia accounted for nearly half of the global deaths from disasters such as earthquakes and floods. “Too often though, governments jump to relocate settlements expecting that they can cut disaster losses by just reducing exposure to hazards," says Opdyke.

"We see repeatedly that disasters are often distorted by policy makers for political gain, without truly understanding the drivers of disaster risk."

“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.”

While acknowledging the urgency of the problems faced by Jakarta, Opdyke says that the solution lay, not in the simplicity of a blank canvas, but in recognising the complexities of the problem.

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

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