Can Jakarta save itself from rising seas?

Apr 28, 2016, 2:21 PM EDT
Jakarta, Indonesia.
(Source: Stefan Magdalinski/flickr)

It's back to the drawing board for Jakarta's planned "Giant Sea Wall." The northern coastal part of the Indonesian capital is sinking while the sea level rises from climate change, so a mitigation scheme is vital. On Wednesday Indonesian president Joko Widodo ordered that one component of the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) program, the creation of 17 artificial islands, be re-planned.

While contracts to 9 private developers had already been awarded by Jakarta authorities, the patchy legal framework for the unprecedented project was insufficient. After the country's parliament found seven violations, the land-reclamation scheme was put on a six month moratorium while further investigations took place and appropriate regulations could be issued.

Widodo ordered the harmonization of regulations across all relevant national and municipal agencies prior to resuming the project. He also insisted that the revised plans ensure environmental sustainability and the welfare of local people like fishermen who will be affected by the changes.

Due to deep groundwater extraction and the pressure from high-rise buildings, northern Jakarta is sinking 7.5-12cm annually. This means that without any preventive action, by 2025 more flooding is expected from Jakarta’s 13 rivers, since most will stop discharging by gravity to the sea. Likewise, the sea will gradually submerge the northern part of the city (presently home to 40% of Jakarta’s 10 million residents) by 2030. And fifty years from now, the sea level is expected to be 3-5 meters above Jakarta’s street level. While the sea wall is being built, Jakarta’s temporary dikes will be strengthened.

As Indonesia Investments originally reported, the 10-15 year NCICD project’s $40 billion tab was to be financed by the Indonesian government, the local Jakarta administration, and the private sector. In order to make this masterplan more attractive for private investors, the surface of the giant sea wall will become a center of urban development, including upmarket offices and housing, as well as low-cost housing, green areas, and beaches. The islands will thus help ease the overcrowding of present-day Jakarta, with an estimated capacity to house 2 million residents. However, on Wednesday Widodo said “The development of the capital's coastal area should be driven entirely by the government and not by private institutions.” The fate of the nine developers’ permits was not addressed at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, fueling speculation that they could be revoked.

The Netherlands, a pioneer of sea dikes necessary for the survival of its low-lying territory, is both an inspiration for Indonesia and a joint partner in the NCICD. Widodo spoke glowingly of his recent visit to the Netherlands, where he saw their integrated water management system. Jakarta must be resilient, he said, and put in place environmentally sustainable measures for the provision of clean drinking water, mitigation of land subsidence, waste management, and flood control. Doing so “will also later relate to the development of ports, airports, highways and mass transportation that will all have to be well integrated," he added.

Climate change is already upon Indonesia; other vulnerable coastal cities will likely follow Jakarta’s example.

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