Indonesia's President Joko Widodo speaks at a podium as people photograph him.
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo speaks at the first-phase launch of Jakarta's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) in March. Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Jakarta has 10 million people and is sinking faster than any other city in the world. But there are other factors involved in its relocation plan.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo may finally push forward a long-standing proposal to move the nation’s capital out of the polluted, sinking city of Jakarta, and off the crowded main island of Java. Though details remain scant, the plan he approved last week during a special cabinet meeting is expected to take five to 10 years, at least, and cost $33 billion to complete—if it comes to fruition.

The government has not said where the new capital will be, but an official told reporters it is eyeing somewhere in eastern Indonesia, according to the AP.

Relocation has been broached by presidents since Indonesia’s independence in 1945, but there’s a growing sense of urgency. Jakarta, a city of 10 million, is sinking faster than any other city in the world—a few inches each year. This is largely caused by excessive groundwater pumping as the government fails to pipe in enough clean drinking water; only 4 percent of the city’s wastewater is treated.

A flooded roundabout, pictured in 2015, further paralyzes traffic in Jakarta. (Zabur Karuru/Antara Foto/Reuters)

Poor neighborhoods along the northern coast are frequently flooded as they sink even faster—as much as 25 centimeters annually. Already, 40 percent of the city sits below sea level, and some studies estimate that half of Jakarta could be under water by 2030.

By that time, the already overcrowded city is projected to be the biggest in the world, with the population of the metropolitan area expected to grow from nearly 30 million to 35.6 million. That’s worrying, because although Jakarta accounts for one-fifth of the country’s GDP, its infrastructure already can’t keep up. With 3.5 million daily commuters, Jakarta is by one measure the third-worst city in the world for traffic congestion, and it has the most polluted air in Southeast Asia, according to a Greenpeace study. The gridlock alone accounts for $7 billion in economic losses.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Jokowi approved the long-term plan to shift the central government to a new city as votes from April’s general election are still being counted. He is anticipated to win a second term over his opponent, Prabowo Subianto—a former general and son-in-law of Indonesia’s second president, whom Jokowi also ran against in 2014.

“[O]nly part of this [plan] is environmental,” says Kian Goh, an assistant professor of planning at UCLA, who studies the urban politics and environmental issues of Jakarta. “Indonesia is an incredibly sprawling country across thousands of islands, and moving the capital away from the busiest and most economically driving island may well be both a business decision to open up new avenues for investment in other places, and also a means of political control.”

There is still political uncertainty, Goh points out, since Subianto has not conceded. “So this is a way to also assert a tantalizing image, or to shake things up, to say, ‘I am actually in charge and I can [realize] these kinds of big visions for the country.’”

Jokowi is the first president to come from a modest background since Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1998. He was a furniture salesman before becoming mayor of the mid-sized city Solo in Java, and then the governor of Jakarta. (Administratively, Jakarta is a province.) He ran for president on a platform of economic and infrastructure development and making the government more open and accountable to the people.

Yet many progressives feel he hasn’t done enough to increase transparency and mitigate inequality in both Jakarta and across the country. He hasn’t delivered on his goal of 1 million affordable homes, for example, and his progress on human rights is weak. As Foreign Policy put it, “Jokowi [is] now the establishment pragmatist rather than the hope-and-change upstart.”

“The president faces an incredible weight of potential conflicts and challenges to his national authority, all the way from Aceh on the far west end of the set of islands to Timor on the far east,” says Goh. “A move to literally reposition the capital and assert a different kind of control over the country may have to do with reframing the center of power in the country itself.”

It also comes amid tension between the city and the national government following a grandiose proposal to build a $40 billion seawall—in the shape of a mythical bird, and with a swanky waterfront—to protect the northern coast. This plan involved outside governments, like South Korea and the Netherlands, as well as Dutch designers and developers.

Critics argued, though, that it would increase pollution by walling off fresh water, and that it ignored the fishermen who rely on the sea as well as the waterside kampung, or slum, communities who already face mass evictions for other flood-mitigation projects. And more critically, it didn’t address the problem of land subsidence. That project was nixed in 2017, but a master plan with some kind of sea wall remains on the books.

A man throws his net to catch fish in a polluted river at the eastern flood canal in Jakarta. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

Economically, Indonesia has long sought to create new centers of growth outside Java. Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro said during a meeting with reporters that the proposed new government center would ensure equitable development across the archipelago. Of the more than 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia, Java generates about 58 percent of the country’s GDP. The next biggest chunk comes from the island of Sumatra, with 20 percent—the same amount contributed by Jakarta alone.

Deden Rukmana is an urban-planning professor at Alabama A&M University who is from Indonesia. He’s long argued that the country needs to invest in other urban areas instead of pouring a disproportionate amount of state resources into fixing Jakarta’s rapid-urbanization problems. Efforts to transform its infrastructure have already cost the country tens of billions of dollars. The city’s center was intended to accommodate only 500,000 people, according to Rukmana.

Whether the move will actually come to fruition is not clear, and Indonesians are skeptical. But Rukmana is optimistic. “Jokowi is different,” he says.“In the past four years, since his first presidency, he executed things.” Jokowi has made a number of infrastructural improvements, including launching the city’s first underground rail system just last month.

The key, Rukmana says, is to move the capital to a second-tier city whose local economy can benefit from the project, but not too far away, to maintain a connection with Jakarta. By those criteria, Palangkaraya, one of the rumored destinations, could be a good fit. A city of 200,000, it’s 560 miles northeast of Jakarta on the island of Borneo. Palangkaraya’s geography is also appealing: It doesn’t sit in the so-called “ring of fire,” the chain of more than 450 volcanoes that are responsible for 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes.

Some critics, though, have pointed out that Palangkaraya suffers from its own pollution and land subsidence issues, which would be exacerbated by absorbing the government. One economist predicted the move could sharpen inequality in the new host city. Speaking to the China Global Television Network, he said an influx of government officials could create gaps in income between them and locals.

So what does all this mean for Jakarta? Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan said himself that the government departing wouldn’t ease the city’s traffic woes: There are 17 million registered private vehicles in the city, and only 141,000 government vehicles. According to Channel News Asia, the new capital will be designed to house 900,000 to 1.5 million people, mostly government employees and their families. That would barely make a dent in Jakarta’s population.

It seems unlikely that Jakarta’s massive business sector and wealth would quickly follow the central government to a new city. Even if the government moves, it will still need to develop carefully thought-out strategies to deal with Jakarta’s sinking land and rising seas. That means better delivery of clean water, not just to the poor, but also to the middle and wealthy classes, who resort to groundwater extraction because they don’t trust the city’s water system. It also means dramatically improving the infiltration of water back into the ground. Jakarta’s leaders need to stop pushing the poor to the city’s margins, Goh says (especially in the name of environmental improvements), and better connect them to municipal services.

“Jakarta has been the center of economic activity in Indonesia, and likely will remain so, regardless of whether the capital is moved,” says Goh. “The people will still be there, and the problems they face will still be there.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of a new transit system in Jakarta. It is the first underground rail system, not the first bus-rapid-transit system.

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