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Climate Change forces a Capital City Change

Are you worried about climate change?

I don’t know of a single person who would say no to that question. With the news saturated with scary headlines and depressing predictions, the fate of our earth is a topic of conversation almost every day. Worse still, the things we can do in response to the predicament seem few and far between. But one country is actually doing something about it.

Indonesia is proposing to relocate its capital, from Jakarta, to a new city to be named Nusantara. President Joko Widodo first announced the plan in 2019, declaring that the capital would move to East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo and just last month, Indonesian parliament passed the bill approving the relocation. The project is estimated to be finished as soon as 2024 at the staggering cost of $32bil / RM133.8bil.

The reason? Climate change.

Jakarta is sinking faster than any other city in the world. Almost half the city now sits below sea level and continues to sink by as much as 25cm a year in areas to the north. In fact, models estimate that 90% of North Jakarta could be submerged by 2050.

This is partly due to rising sea levels, and partly due to the extraction of groundwater, which is done excessively and often illegally to make up for the insufficient infrastructure for piped water supply.

The land subsidence issue is only one of several climate challenges that Jakarta currently faces. Flash floods are a frequent occurrence, with at least 48 deaths being attributed to the recent flooding in 2020.

The risks of tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are considerable, as are the urban issues of deteriorating air quality and severe traffic congestion. It seems that the city is no longer viable to hold the prestigious capital city status.

By stark contrast, Nusantara will be designed to be completely environmentally sustainable – think of zero emission utopia, complete with smart cars and bike lanes.

Widodo has been quiet on the details but outlined his hopes for a ‘new smart metropolis’ that will be a ‘centre of innovation’ for Indonesia. Moving the centre of development away from Java, the smallest of Indonesia’s major islands, also aims to readdress the economic inequality in the country as part of the post pandemic recovery programme.

However, the drastic decision is not without controversy. Critics note the rushed deliberation process and lack of public consultation, and there are concerns about the drain on the state budget. Environmentally, there is a huge danger of accelerating pollution in the jungles of Borneo, and further destruction to the homes of endangered species such orangutans, sun bears and long nosed monkeys. Indigenous people of the area have not been considered in the proposal whatsoever.

Some of the worst criticisms of the project hint at corruption within government and even put the decision down to President Widodo’s desire for a lasting legacy.

Whilst it is undeniably relieving to see any action being taken about climate change, it is imperative to ensure it is meaningful and useful action. It is clear that Jakarta cannot take the strain of being the administrative, cultural and economic capital of Indonesia any longer, and moving the capital elsewhere is a logical step. The same has been done by several countries in the past, such as Myanmar’s transfer of its capital from overpopulated Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2006.

However, I think razing the rainforest to build a new city from scratch is a regressive and pointless exercise in wasting precious resources, both economic and environmental. There are other cities in Indonesia desperately in need of investment and development that would have benefitted from becoming the capital, like Yogyakarta. Building a planned city will increase the problem twofold in my opinion, as the government can stick their head in the sand about Jakarta whilst spoiling some of the last unpolluted areas of the world.

It remains to be seen how successful the move will be if it does go ahead. Despite my reservations about Widodo’s exact plan, I hope other world leaders are inspired by his courage to do something about climate change – to take action, now.

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