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Thirty million people live in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta and the surrounding metropolitan area. Their city has served for decades as a financial and diplomatic hub of Southeast Asia as well as the political center of Indonesia, a nation of 17,000 islands. Jakarta is one of the most overpopulated cities in the world, and it is sinking into the Java Sea. Built on a swamp, the city has experienced subsidence made worse by the inhabitants’ gradual draining of the groundwater aquifer, which has left about 40% of the city below sea level. Add to that the sea-level rise associated with climate change, and you have a recipe for disaster, with many parts of the metropolitan area already prone to chronic flooding. Indonesian scientists predict that 95% of the city will be submerged by 2050. A number of remedies have been proposed, including massive flood control barriers to keep the sea at bay. But this past April, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced that the government has made a radical choice—to relocate the capital away from Jakarta. Last week, he announced that the new capital will be built about 621 miles away on the far less developed island of Borneo. Starting with a 5,000 acre initial phase, scheduled for completion by 2024, the new city will eventually grow to 495,000 acres, about two-and-a-half times the size of New York City, at an estimated cost of $34 billion.
While President Widodo touts the new capital’s more central and accessible location, the nation’s environmental community worries about the impact on Borneo’s rainforest, which provides an irreplaceable natural habitat for orangutans and other species. Widodo has promised a restorative “forest city” with huge expanses of parkland and gardens that will enhance the environmental integrity of the region. The plan doesn’t really solve the problems of Jakarta, however, which will continue to serve as a center of commerce, and is expected to grow exponentially in population, even as 1.5 million government workers relocate to the new, as yet unnamed “green city” that will be the new capital.
The fact is, even without the eminent threat posed by subsidence and rising seas, Jakarta has become an extremely overcrowded and increasingly dysfunctional city plagued by the polluted water supplies, poor air quality, crime and the unmanageable traffic that comes with explosive and largely unregulated growth over generations. Many critics and even some proponents of Widodo’s plan believe the new capital may be tied as much to political and economic opportunities as to the pending climate disaster, an understandable desire to flee a city that has exhausted its ability to function, and simply start over.
In the U.S., the Center for Climate Integrity has recently calculated that by 2040 it could cost as much as $400 billion to build sea walls to protect the nation’s vulnerable coastal towns and cities. Coastal cities like Boston, Norfolk, Charleston, Houston, San Francisco and New York are grappling with the projected costs and long-term viability of elaborate harbor barriers, sea walls, floodgates and pumping systems. They are also considering that it may be necessary and more practical in the long term to simply relocate people and infrastructure away from low-lying areas, as the City of Norfolk is planning to do. In Boston, which has expanded development into tidal marshes as its population has grown over the years, some neighborhoods are starting to see chronic flooding that could soon cost $1.4 billion a year in lost property and commerce. Residents of Houston recently approved $2.5 billion toward a comprehensive flood-control plan that will upgrade streams and drainage channels; the total cost could reach $30 billion. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, they are also starting to implement the kind of land-use controls that might have helped avoid some of the worst damage.
Right now, it doesn’t look like much help will come from the federal government, partly because the relevant agencies like FEMA and HUD are not funded at the levels that would make such projects possible. More fundamentally, our federal disaster agencies are more reactive than pro-active—more accustomed to funding disaster recovery than helping communities develop the tools and measures that could reduce the impact of future disasters, even when the predicted damage is quantifiable and outweighs the cost of action. With such high stakes, we have to change that paradigm.
Find some interesting information at Yale 360 and the Center for Climate integrity’s Climate Costs study: