Commentary / World

Fix Asia's megacities, don't move them

by Adam Minter

Bloomberg

Asia’s biggest cities, from Shanghai to Dhaka, are struggling to manage the impact of decades of growth. Some are sinking. Most are traffic-choked. And almost all struggle with chronic air pollution. Worst of all, coastal cities face the threat of being inundated by rising seas.

Indonesia’s capital Jakarta suffers these urban ills more acutely than most, which is why President Joko Widodo announced a plan last week to shift the government 1,450 km away, to a relatively undeveloped section of Borneo. Indonesia isn’t the first Asian country to move its official capital and won’t be the last. But evacuating government officials and their families won’t solve the problems of Jakarta, Bangkok, Dhaka or any other megacity. Given how many people will continue to live in those urban conurbations, the focus has to remain on fixing what ails them.

The challenges faced by Jakarta and other developing Asian cities were seeded in the 1970s as countries across the region liberalized their economies. In Indonesia, land-use controls were aggressively deregulated in the 1980s while entire sectors of the economy were opened up to direct investment.

Economically, the results were spectacular: Factories, shopping malls and housing developments sprouted up across Jakarta and the surrounding region.

Meanwhile, Indonesians, keen for opportunity, flocked to the city. Between 1970 and 2000, the population of the greater Jakarta region — which now encompasses 12 municipalities or regencies — grew from roughly 5 million people to over 20 million. And from 2000 to 2010, it added another 7 million people, making it the world’s fastest-growing urban region outside of China. By 2030, greater Jakarta will be home to 35 million people, topping Tokyo for the title of world’s most populous city.

The results are well-known. Jakarta is home to some of the world’s worst traffic jams; drivers are accustomed to spending two hours to move 5 km. That traffic accounts for 75 percent of Jakarta’s air pollution, which also happens to be among the world’s worst. Jakarta’s metro only opened this year and isn’t expected to make a noticeable impact for years, if ever.

Meanwhile, 60 percent of Jakarta’s residents rely upon often illegally pumped groundwater, in part because of how polluted other sources are. That’s caused the land to subside: Since the 1970s, parts of Jakarta have sunk as much as four meters, at a rate of over 25 cm per year. Today, roughly 40 percent of the city is below sea level and floods are a regular occurrence.

There’s little reason to think that relocating 1.5 million bureaucrats and their families — as the current plan contemplates — will relieve these problems for the tens of millions of people left behind in Jakarta. Indeed, the experience of other Asian countries suggests it will merely divert attention and resources. Malaysia’s decision to relocate its capital from Kuala Lumpur to Putrajaya in the 1990s was partly intended to reduce traffic and pollution in the older city. Yet, 20 years on, both have gotten worse.

Like Malaysia and other countries, Indonesia has favored top-down technocratic solutions to Jakarta’s problems, including building seawalls, clearing low-income communities from flood plains and now establishing a new capital. Indeed, the government recently announced that it plans to spend $40 billion on needed infrastructure improvements to Jakarta, in addition to the money promised to its new capital city.

Yet the real issue remains failures of governance in an era of fast urbanization. If the government can’t effectively regulate real estate developers and land use, it certainly can’t stop the city from sinking thanks to illegal groundwater pumping.

In this, Indonesia is hardly alone. In China, more than 50 cities, including Shanghai, are struggling to control land subsidence due to overuse of groundwater and uncontrolled development. Fast-growing Dhaka, Manila, and Bangkok are facing similar struggles. And it seems every up-and-coming Asian city confronts a crippling traffic and pollution problem as rising incomes increase the number of cars on the road.

To address these issues properly, Asia’s governments need to be more responsive to voices beyond the vested interests that have been so crucial to building the region’s economy. For example, in recent years slum communities along Jakarta’s Ciliwung River have engaged in large-scale mapping of their environmental vulnerabilities, as well as local polluters. That should help efforts to clean up the river and ultimately reduce the use of groundwater. Effective, responsive governments — not new cities — are what the denizens of Asia’s megacities really need.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg columnist.

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