When faced with growing risk in flood-prone locations there are three options—defend, adapt, or relocate. Solutions for each location at risk are likely to involve a customized blend of all three tailored to the needs of the local situation.
Defending a location can involve a wide range of measures from building or strengthening levees and constructing tunnels and reservoirs to planting mangroves. Adaptation can similarly take many forms from raising vulnerable properties on stilts and elevating utilities and other services to changing planning priorities. Both responses support remaining in situ, but relocation entails moving elsewhere to less vulnerable locations.
On January 18, 2022, lawmakers in Indonesia passed a bill enabling the removal of the nation’s capital from Jakarta on the island of Java to a new location 1,000 km away in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. The new capital, which will be called Nusantara, will take decades to build on a virgin 40,000-hectare site on state land near the existing urban centers of Balikpapan and Samarinda.
Construction is set to begin in 2023 and the first civil servants are expected to relocate in 2024. It is intended to be a low carbon "super hub" that will also foster sustainable growth in the pharmaceutical, health, and technology sectors, but the plan has raised numerous environmental concerns. Kalimantan is a lightly populated region of an island known for its tropical rainforests, which are the natural habitat of the endangered orangutan.
To be clear, there is no plan to relocate the entire population of Jakarta (almost 10 million people), just the nation’s bureaucratic center, the 1.5 million civil servants who run it, and presumably their families and support services. The notion of moving the capital has been around for decades and the current plan was to have been launched in 2019 but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are several reasons for wanting to make the move, including Jakarta’s notorious pollution and traffic and the desire to locate the capital closer to the geographic center of the nation’s 1,700-island archipelago. A significant driver of the decision, however, is Jakarta’s high flood risk.
Greater Jakarta is one of the largest and most populous metropolitan areas in the world. It is home to about 60% of Indonesia’s population and a major trade, industrial, and financial center responsible for at least half of Indonesia’s economic activity. It lies on the northwest coast of Java at the mouth of the Ciliwung (Liwung River) in a low-lying swampy area with 13 rivers flowing into it.
In a country where heavy monsoon rains frequently trigger flooding and landslides the city is naturally susceptible to flooding. This tendency has been exacerbated by sea level rise, deforestation, poor urban planning, excessive construction, compromised natural drainage, and water extraction. The city is sinking at an alarming rate, with subsidence generally about 3.6 cm annually and 4.9 cm a year reported recently in North Jakarta; approximately 40% of the city is below sea level and few major cities are more flood-prone.
The city is trying to adapt and to defend itself. It has attempted to limit groundwater intake by large customers and to curb rapid urbanization, a giant seawall is under construction to the north of the city, and there are plans to build a flood barrier across the Jakarta Bay. But the government has decided that the pressure on the area is unsustainable and that more must be done to alleviate it. The retreat of the nation’s capital to another location is a big step in that direction.