The King, the ocean and the new  capital city

Text by Giovanni Zanaroli

Once upon a time, there was an Asian city. It was built centuries before by European colonizers and became the capital of a very large kingdom. Over the years, the city grew and expanded exponentially: it became a never-ending metropolis. Due to tropical rains and its close proximity to a river delta, flooding had always been an issue. But then it started being recurrent and very costly for the king of that land. 

One day, the king was informed by his advisor that the city was slowly sinking down, even below sea level. That was the reason for all the flooding! So it happened that the king of the city -persuaded by powerful businessmen- made up his mind to move his palace and the capital of the kingdom to another island. 

“A new, perfect city will be built” announced the king. “No more flooding and no more chaos or dirt in the streets. Order, equity and safety will be the shibboleth of our new capital”. Just one question was bothering the king (and everyone else): What will happen to the old capital? Will it be taken by the ocean and be forgotten forever?

As you can imagine, this is no fairy tale. I made it up based on a real story. The city is Jakarta and the “King” is Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo. In the fall of 2019, while Venice and other European cities were flooded, Widodo revealed more details concerning his plan to relocate Indonesia’s capital to another area of the country. The province of East Kalimantan, situated on Borneo island and in a more central area of the country, will see a new city on its land and will host diplomacy and government offices starting from 2024. At the same time, Jakarta will remain the economic and financial centre of Indonesia. 

This decision is an attempt to provide “economic equality and justice” as stated by the President in front of the Parliament. Alongside with alleviating the burden on Jakarta. In fact, the city is already overcrowded and is expected to reach a population of 35.6 million by 2030. This doesn’t make things easy: for decades, problems such as chronic traffic congestion and bad air pollution have affected the city. But also, studies have demonstrated a link between human activity and exposure to flood risk. 

As in many other parts of the globe, flood risk is no recent news. Since its foundation in 1619 by the hand of the Dutch, Jakarta has experienced several coastal and river flooding events. Besides the disastrous tsunami of 2004 where 167 000 people died in the capital, major flooding events have occurred with surprising regularity in the past years (1996, 2002, 2007 and 2013), while minor events are normally registered during every rainy season. Every flooding event costs the government millions of dollars.

But the most worrying aspect is that the ground is sinking down. This phenomenon is known as “subsidence” and is caused by drilling in search of drinking water: the space left by the pumped water makes the ground sink under the weight of human constructions, which are still being built. Due to subsidence, the ground of Jakarta is sinking between 5 and 25 centimetres per year. More than a third of the surface is already below sea level and has become more exposed to flooding events. Other problems, such as the uncontrolled development of the city and an inefficient sewage system (often clogged due to ignorance of the citizens), are also connected with high flooding risk. The picture only looks worse for the years to come, when climate change will result in even more frequent extreme events and higher sea levels. 

What to do about that? Water management infrastructure was introduced already during colonial times (dams, canals etc.). Massive adaptation measures were announced and partly implemented, in the last 15 to 20 years. For example, a 32 km long wall (“The Giant Sea Wall”) will be built all along the shore of the city. Mega pumps and two flood-canals, one eastern and one western will bring the water out of the city in case of a flood. However, the decision to build a new capital city suggests something new: bring people away in order to save the city. 

Location of the new Indonesian capital city (https://phys.org )

Please note that this is no isolated event. In case of worsened conditions, man has often preferred to move to a new area, rather than fix or adapt to the problems at the source. For example: when some activity is causing too much pollution in a surrounding city, it’s often easier to move the population somewhere else, rather than to cease the activity and remediate the area. This has been the case for many towns and villages in the proximity of mining caves. But when we are talking about the metropolis with millions of people, that is no piece of cake nor a realistic thing to do. So a government can try to create a new city and give a possibility to move there. This is happening in Egypt, where a new capital is being built in the desert, 30 kilometres away from the overcrowded and polluted Cairo. 

One could ask: is it legitimate to build brand new cities in 2020? The investments for projects like this one (estimated to cost 32 billion dollars, 19% of Indonesian budget) could help secure the existing cities from flooding and tackle climate change and local problems such as traffic, air pollution etc. Especially if we think that -with current predictions of 3°C temperature increase by 2100- many other megalopoleis will deal with the same problems but are still at an early stage of climate change adaptation. Shanghai, Hong Kong, Calcutta, Mumbai, Tokyo, Osaka, Rio De Janeiro, Alexandria, Miami…will they all move their population and build new cities inland? 

For this and other reasons, the project was criticized. Environmentalists are worried about the impact which the new capital city will have on Borneo, an island which used to be entirely covered by rainforest and will become extremely strategic within South-East Asia. It would worry me if I was living in Jakarta because it all sounds a little bit like an admission that it might not be possible to protect the city from the water. 

Furthermore, this project could be criticized because it attempts to solve problems caused by capitalism…with capitalism. As it already happened in the “Batam Islands”, where the top-down attempt to imitate Singapore and modernize the area resulted in a local economy not able to take off, unfinished constructions and ruined tourism potential. All this while Indonesia’s contribution to climate change mitigation is highly insufficient according to the 2019 report from the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), despite the high potential in forestry and electricity generation sectors.

But of course, this is an economic decision first of all. Those 32 billion dollars wouldn’t be available if the plan was “just” to make Jakarta a safe and sustainable city. They are there because it’s a maxi capitalistic project. And international interests are involved. In this article, I have stated the official reason for the relocation of the capital, but it has been shown that China and Japan have played a role. The new capital project will involve a lot of constructing and new infrastructures, services which developed economies are eager to provide. As it already happened in the designated area for the project, where the works for the construction of the first toll road and the new railway lines were commissioned to Chinese companies, even before the location of new capital had been announced.

Politically, this story can be read under the lens of “Disaster Capitalism”. Social scientists define it as “any new opportunity for capitalist projects which is created out of predicted emergencies or occurred natural disasters”. Research showed that Indonesian media have concentrated over the years on a few specific issues, one being the subsidence of Jakarta. It is asserted that the Indonesian government and other stakeholders have pushed for the creation of consensus towards new infrastructure projects by spreading a feeling of panic in the population.

And despite it was framed the opposite, this project falls within the ideology of the elites: only the rich deserve to live in a good and safe place. I’ve seen this in many places of the world: in Fés (Morocco), where the modern city was built 10 kilometres away from the miserable old medina. It happened in Brazil, with the construction of the new capital (Brasilia) designed as an ideal and car-friendly town; ending up being an exclusive, empty “city” and leaving Rio De Janeiro with its favelas and its poverty just as before. But it happens in developed countries too, such as Sweden. With the creation of “cities within the city”: outskirt neighbourhoods where the marginalized are left to themselves and the wealthy don’t want to live.

In a nutshell, it’s fair for the king to dream about a new capital city for his kingdom, as long as he doesn’t forget about all the rest.

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