Capital flight: Indonesian move could prompt new environment crisis

Construction of the new capital at the eastern edge of Borneo is set to begin next year
Construction of the new capital at the eastern edge of Borneo is set to begin next year

Abandoning Jakarta for a new capital in Borneo won't save the fast-sinking Indonesian megacity from disaster and could even spark a fresh environmental crisis in a region home to rainforests and endangered orangutans, critics have warned.

President Joko Widodo announced this week that the Southeast Asian nation's political heart would be moved nearly 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) east to a yet-to-be-built model city as a way of easing pressure on densely populated Java.

Sprawling Jakarta—home to nearly 30 million people counting its greater metropolitan area—is plagued by a host of ills, from eye-watering and pollution to the risk of earthquakes and floods.

It is also among the fastest-sinking cities on the planet.

Experts say one-third of Jakarta could be submerged by 2050 due to excessive depletion of groundwater reserves, rising sea levels, and volatile weather patterns driven by climate change.

Construction of the new capital at the eastern edge of Borneo—the exact location remains a mystery—is set to begin next year with some 1.5 million expected to start moving by 2024, at a cost of 466 trillion rupiah ($33 billion).

Known as Kalimantan, Indonesia's section of Borneo, which it shares with Malaysia and Brunei, is home to major mining activities as well as rainforests, and is one of the few places on Earth with orangutans in their natural habitat.

But mining and palm oil plantations are already threatening Borneo's environment and endangered species habitats, a problem that could only get worse if a big city is built near a key conservation area, green groups say.

Cautious optimism

The area was the scene of a major oil spill last year.

"East Kalimantan is already under heavy environmental strain," said Zenzi Suhadi, a spokesman for Indonesian environmental network WALHI.

The area is home to major mining activities as well as rainforests and endangered orangutans
The area is home to major mining activities as well as rainforests and endangered orangutans

"There are hundreds of mines and plantations. When the area gets overstressed (with a new capital) are they going to move again to another place?"

Indigenous leaders in Borneo expressed cautious optimism that the new capital would help marginalised groups and supply an economic boost to a region with about 20 million residents—a small chunk of the archipelago's 260 million people.

"But we're also worried," said Yulius Yohanes, an academic and community leader for the Dayak ethnic group.

"The Dayaks are concerned about the condition of our forests—we've always had a with them."

Indonesia's government has pledged to invest billions of dollars to fix Jakarta's problems and said that protected forests would not be affected by the new capital.

Widodo recently announced a permanent moratorium on issuing new permits to clear primary forests for agricultural plantations and logging.

"But there is still a risk that primary forests could be affected," Suhadi said.

As blazes devastate the Amazon rainforest, Indonesia has deployed thousands to battle annual forest fires—often triggered by burning for land-clearance purposes—that are ravaging vast swathes of jungle and belching out in Borneo and Sumatra island.

Massive fires in Indonesia caused a smog outbreak across Southeast Asia in 2015 that set off diplomatic frictions with neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore—and may have caused more than 100,000 , according to a US study.

"The plan to move the capital should be called off if the government can't fix the fires issue," said urban planning expert Nirwono Joga.

In the overcrowded capital, the plan to move has been met with scepticism by many residents.

A recent survey found some 95 percent of those polled were against the move, and some poked fun at the plan online—mocking the country's leader and suggesting the new capital could be called "Jokograd" or "Saint Jokoburg" in a nod to his outsized ambitions.


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Indonesia picks Borneo island for new capital

© 2019 AFP

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Aug 31, 2019
As the transition and settlement takes decades, it is the right time that all world coastal cities should be gradually moved to higher elevations beyond setback line outside the vulnerable coastal zone. Great move by the Indonesia!

Human settlement of any kind should be prohibited by law in the vulnerable coastal zone as defined by the scenario under 2K rise of global temperature.

Aug 31, 2019
That "1,200 miles" seems a bit much. I recall that the flight from Jakarta to southern Borneo, in 1968, was not over about three hours in a C-47. (Not a DC-3 - in that it had canvas seating on tube metal frames and a static line on the ceiling for paratroopers.) It was a 'civil' flight, I was joining a seismic oil exploration crew.

Aug 31, 2019
Human settlement of any kind should be prohibited by law in the vulnerable coastal zone as defined by the scenario under 2K rise of global temperature.

What 2K rise scenario? It would take hundreds of years for sea level rise to come to equilibrium if we just rose 2K and stopped. Meanwhile, we're not likely to do that, we're likely to continue warming past the 2K point. We're unlikely to get 4m of sea level rise by 2100 even though we'll be over the 2K point. But at equilibrium, sea level will be much higher than that. So how do you define the "vulnerable coastal zone"? And what do you want to do for the hundreds of years that you wait for equilibrium? prohibit anyone from going to the ocean?

Regardless, it sounds like you're going for adaptation rather than mitigation. It's almost always cheaper to mitigate than to adapt, so maybe we should try harder at mitigation.

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