Giant reclamation project in Jakarta hits wall of resistance

A child watching a worker operating heavy machinery for the construction of a concrete sea wall in North Jakarta in August. The low-lying Indonesian capital faces growing risks from rising sea levels, subsidence and annual flooding from more than a d
A child watching a worker operating heavy machinery for the construction of a concrete sea wall in North Jakarta in August. The low-lying Indonesian capital faces growing risks from rising sea levels, subsidence and annual flooding from more than a dozen rivers that flow through it.PHOTO: REUTERS

Incoming city administration at loggerheads with central government over whether 24km sea wall is boon or bane

Tensions are brewing between Indonesia's central government and the incoming Jakarta administration over a huge land reclamation project meant to protect the north of the capital from coastal flooding.

Low-lying Jakarta faces growing risks from rising sea levels, subsidence and annual flooding from more than a dozen rivers that flow through it.

The national government backs the 24km sea wall and reclamation project, saying it will protect the sinking city.

But the US$40 billion (S$54 billion) project in Jakarta Bay, which started in 2014 but was suspended last year, faces fierce opposition from Jakarta Governor-elect Anies Baswedan and his deputy Sandiaga Uno.

The pair from the opposition coalition had campaigned strongly against the project during the gubernatorial elections, saying it would disrupt the livelihoods of local fishermen.

"This is for the sake of the environment and the protection of fishermen, coastal community and Jakartans," Mr Sandiaga told The Jakarta Post on Sunday, just a week before he and Mr Anies officially take over at City Hall next Monday.

The issue returned to the fore with the lifting of a moratorium on the project by the national government last Thursday.

Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan spoke out against Mr Sandiaga's comments.

"Don't make noise in public," said the government's point man for the reclamation project. "If you don't agree, just tell us because we are the ones who conducted the research."

Mr Luhut was referring to the environmental impact analysis, a study that looked into, among other things, power plant designs, sedimentation mitigation and the sailing routes of local fishermen.

The research was conducted to support the lifting of the moratorium, issued last year by Mr Luhut's predecessor, Mr Rizal Ramli.

Mr Luhut believes that Mr Rizal's concerns about the project have been adequately addressed by the latest study.

Mr Atmadji Sumarkidjo, a senior official from the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs, said the decision to lift the ban came only after thorough consideration.

"It went through a long process, involving all stakeholders, so there is no longer a reason to have a moratorium," said Mr Atmadji.

The plan to build a "Giant Sea Wall" has encountered several roadblocks since it was first mooted in 1995 - the tail end of then President Suharto's New Order regime.

The project first involved reclaiming land across 17 artificial islets in waters off North Jakarta to create a barrier.

Earlier studies showed that Jakarta, located on a low, flat basin below sea level, was sinking at a rate of up to 20cm a year.

The latest version of the land reclamation project also ran into problems. Fishermen often complained that land reclamation, which started in 2014, affected their daily catch.

There were also disagreements between the central government and former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama over who had authority over the project.

According to Professor Siti Zuhro, a political expert from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the Jakarta administration may yet have the upper hand on the Jakarta Bay project because of a Special Autonomy Law enacted in 2014.

She said: "The local (Jakarta) government is entitled to speak out and participate in the discussions on whether the Jakarta Bay reclamation project should continue."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Giant reclamation project in Jakarta hits wall of resistance'. Print Edition | Subscribe