Indonesia's environmental sacrifice: For the greater good?
Jakarta land reclamation and sea wall projects in the spotlight
19 July 2016
By: Devina Heriyanto

That Indonesia needs a radical overhaul of its infrastructure if economic growth is to meet expectations is a given. That Jakarta needs to fundamentally and rapidly address its flooding problems to avoid continued economic losses when the capital is brought to a standstill during the floods is also essential. But does that mean the environmental impact of such solutions should be ignored?

In the capital, two such projects – land reclamation in Jakarta Bay and the Jakarta Great Sea Wall – aim to bolster infrastructure and prevent flooding, respectively.  

The capital suffers badly from the annual flooding of the Ciliwung River, worsened by rising sea levels and land subsidence. It is sinking at an average of 7.5 centimeters (cm) annually, with coastal areas even faster at 25 cm per year. To put it in context, Jakarta’s subsidence rate is even faster than that of Venice, Italy.

“If we do nothing, Jakarta will be under water in 10 years due to global warming, which results in a rising sea level,” said Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, as quoted by The Jakarta Post.

Flooding for Jakarta is not only a natural disaster, but also an economic one. So there is no other option but to save the city, a center for business and home to by far busiest port in the country, Tanjung Priok. Major floods in 2007, which submerged 60 percent of the city, caused Rp 4.3 trillion in financial losses because of damaged property and infrastructure. Goods produced in industrial estates near Jakarta, mostly from Jababeka in Bekasi, must pass through Tanjung Priok to be exported, and when the city is flooded, that becomes a major headache.

But saving Jakarta with a giant sea wall will come at an enormous cost for the environment.

On the northern coast of the city lies 320 hectares (ha) of mangrove forest, 180 ha of which is protected. Considered as “the last true mangrove area of Jakarta Bay”, the forest has also become popular as a tourist destination. The Jakarta city administration claimed to have 340 hectares of mangrove areas in 2011. All of which will be lost when the sea wall is built.

The Jakarta Great Sea Wall will enclose the city, separating it from the Java Sea. As a result, the water inside the wall – between the coast of the city and the wall itself – will lose its salinity. Mangrove habitats will cease to exist, something acknowledged in the draft masterplan of the project, which is available online. As the mangroves disappear, so will important species of fish, crabs, and birds, and Jakarta’s fishermen have protested that the land reclamation project has already negatively affected their catches. The impact of the sea wall will be even worse.

In saving the city, both economically and physically, Indonesia will have to make a big environmental sacrifice.

Almost a quarter of the world's mangrove areas are located in Indonesia, at 3 million ha spread across 95,000 kilometers (km) of the country's coastline (Giri et al., 2011). The environmental importance of mangrove forests is that they absorb the highest density of carbon emissions in tropical areas, threefold that of land tropical forests (Donato et al., 2011). Indonesia's mangrove areas keep 3.14 billion metric tons of carbon on the ground (Murdiyarso et al., 2015), equal to a third of carbon stock in global coastlines (Pendleton et al., 2012).

In the draft masterplan, there are proposals to build mangrove areas along the Great Sea Wall.

However, if there is one thing the world can agree on climate change, it is that we are in a race against time. Waiting for the mangroves to be restored after the sea wall is finished could take years or even decades, requiring time, a luxury that we cannot afford.

The project and its environmental toll makes us question Indonesia’s seriousness in combating climate change. Particularly, whether the country has actually already considered the environmental cost of every project.

Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's administration has been praised for its climate change pledge, promising to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020. However, many have asked whether his successor, President Joko Widodo, will be able to fulfill this pledge.

Indonesia under President Joko is busy constructing infrastructure in order to attract investment and support economic growth. Aside from the economic benefits, environmental costs must be taken into account too, something that seems to be often forgotten. Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), a large infrastructure project covering a 1.2 million ha area was revived in 2015 to answer the country’s growing hunger for food. However, Greenpeace Southeast Asia reported finding more than 10,000 fire hot spots in Papua, unprecedented in the region.

Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner, Yuyun Indradi, speaking to The Jakarta Post, alleged that there was a connection between the MIFEE project and forest fires.

Indonesia annually releases vast carbon emissions through forest fires, with last year's being dubbed “the worst environmental disaster in history”. Land clearing, mostly for agriculture, contributed a big portion to the country’s staggering rate of deforestation – the fastest in the world according to 2014 findings by the Nature Climate Change journal.

On the mangrove front, Indonesia is not doing so great either. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Indonesia lost 40 percent of its mangrove areas from 1980 to 2005. A more recent report by Campbell and Brown in 2015 says the nation has the fastest rate of destruction of mangrove areas in the world.

The Jakarta Great Sea Wall project is indeed important, and the city needs to be saved from itself before it sinks into the sea. A massive upgrade of the nation’s infrastructure is also required to maintain flourishing economic growth.

Sacrifices must be made, but with great environmental cost. 

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