Editorials

Asia gets that sinking feeling

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s announcement that he wants to move the central government headquarters from Jakarta to the rainforest of Borneo sounds like a megalomaniac’s fantasy. Widodo’s justifications — easing the city’s chronic congestion and better spreading the wealth among the country — make sense, however. Jakarta’s greatest problem is not the overcrowding, though, but a rising sea level — and it is only one of many Asian cities experiencing this problem. Asian leaders, and their publics, and indeed coastal residents around the world, must begin preparing for a future marked by inundation.

Jakarta was founded in the 4th century in a marsh in Java as a key trading port and political center, and as Indonesia’s capital ever since independence following the end of World War II. Today, it is a megacity of 10 million people; the population rises to 30 million when the entire metropolitan area is counted. (If current trends continue, it will surpass greater Tokyo as the world’s most populous city by 2030, with an estimated population of 35.6 million people.)

The city’s congestion is legion: Traffic jams absorb hours each day, robbing the country of productivity — losses are estimated at $7 billion annually — and contribute to a level of air pollution that is among the worst in Asia at times. The expanding population has led to the accelerated withdrawal of ground water, and as a result the city is sinking. Some 40 percent of the city is below sea level and experts believe that parts of the city are sinking 20 centimeters a year.

Widodo wants to move the government headquarters to East Kalimantan province, in the rainforest of Borneo about 1,400 km northeast of Jakarta. The location is geographically situated in the center of the country and will be better protected from the earthquakes, tsunami and other natural disasters that periodically lash Java. In addition to safety, Widodo argues that the move will better distribute Indonesia’s wealth among its 267 million citizens. Java accounts for about 60 percent of the country’s population and 58 percent of its GDP. If approved, construction for the new capital will commence in 2020 and government offices will begin to move in 2024.

While the idea of moving a working capital seems extravagant, nearly three dozen have been relocated in the past century, from Brasilia in Brazil to Canberra in Australia. There are plenty of questions about the feasibility of the project, the most fundamental of which focuses on the price tag. The cost is estimated at 466 trillion rupiah ($33 billion) — an amount that is equivalent to the Indonesian government’s annual infrastructure budget.

That budget question is assuming growing importance as other cities in Asia are being forced to deal with rising sea levels. Bangkok, which is only about 1.5 meters above sea level on average, is threatened by water levels in the Gulf of Thailand that are rising 4 mm a year.

Shanghai’s central business district has sunk 2.6 meters in the last century as a result of excessive use of groundwater. A 2012 study concluded that Shanghai is the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding; 17.5 million people could be displaced by rising waters if global temperatures increase by 3 degrees.

Manila has been battered by rising sea levels, with tropical storms and sea surges submerging more than 80 percent of the city. Singapore is embarking on a 100-year 100 billion Singapore dollars ($72 billion) infrastructure investment plan to fight rising seas. In India. Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai are thought to be at risk.

Japan, too, must be prepared. The country got a taste of the future last year, when Typhoon Jebi inundated Kansai International Airport. Despite having sea walls built to withstand surges of 2.7 meters, the airport was closed when water flooded a runway and one of its terminals. Computer models show a 3-degree rise in temperature would create flooding that would destroy up to $1 trillion of Osaka’s assets by 2070.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has estimated that 46 percent of Japan’s population and 47 percent of the country’s industrial output are threatened by rises in sea levels and associated impacts such as storm surges, typhoons and coastal erosion. The group estimates that Japan will need to spend $115 billion to protect infrastructure against a 1 meter rise in sea level.

While a 1 meter rise in sea level seems severe, it is not. Planning for that future must begin now. Tokyo will not have to move central government functions because of rises in sea level, but that is no reason to put off preparations for a wetter future.