Indonesia: Cracks in Jakarta's sea wall project

Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja Straits Times 30 Mar 15;

EACH morning, crab-catcher Cartum, who goes by a single name, warily eyes the scaffolding of a dyke under construction at the edge of Jakarta Bay as he climbs into his boat to head out to sea.

The dyke on the city's northern edge marks the start of a giant sea wall the Jakarta authorities hope will tame rising sea levels and ease annual flooding in the low-lying city of 18 million people.

Not everyone is happy about the sea wall, which is estimated to cost more than 300 trillion rupiah (S$31.6 billion) once completed. It will be Indonesia's most expensive development project, combining roads, bridges and reclamation for residential and business areas.

Fishermen like Mr Cartum, 33, say they will have to go farther out to sea and spend more on diesel once it is completed.

"If they don't go ahead, it's good for me," he said during a recent interview at his home.

Well, he may get some respite.

The fate of the sea wall is now uncertain after Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Minister Susi Pudjiastuti stepped in to say the project initiated by the Jakarta municipal government needs her endorsement.

She also wants a guarantee that construction of the dam and reclaimed areas will be completed. Some say the scheme is economically not feasible.

The 34km sea wall and reclamation will cover 5,100ha and, viewed from a plane, would resemble the giant mythical Garuda bird, a central feature of Indonesia's national emblem.

The outer wall and reclamation along it will resemble wings, while reclaimed land in the centre will be the body and tail of the bird.

In total, 17 artificial islets and several lagoons will be created.

Urban planning analyst Yayat Supriatna said since this project is within a coastal area, Ms Susi's ministry must give its consent. "Otherwise, the project would be legally flawed," he said.

The standoff between the national and local governments risks the sea wall ending up like several other major infrastructure projects in which construction has either ground to a halt, such as the monorail in central Jakarta, or shelved after years of discussion, such as the 30km Sunda Strait Bridge to link Java and Sumatra islands.

Observers say the sea wall is different and is seen as an urgent fix for the Indonesian capital, which is becoming more vulnerable to rising seas and flooding every year. The city is also sinking in some areas because of large-scale ground water extraction.

The weight of large numbers of high-rise buildings is pressing down on the soft soil on which the city is built, making it harder for rivers to flow freely to the sea.

"Jakarta is sinking fast. North Jakarta is sinking at a speed of 7.5cm per year, in some locations more than 26cm per year," Mr Ad Sannen, a senior consultant at Royal HaskoningDHV, a Dutch firm providing technical assistance for the project, told The Straits Times.

"Most of North Jakarta is already below sea level. In 25 years' time, the streets will be several metres below sea level."

Jakarta is criss-crossed by 13 rivers. During the monsoon season, some rivers burst their banks, flooding densely populated communities. The sea wall is meant to prevent coastal flooding and aid the drainage of the rivers into a series of artificial lagoons.

Pumps will keep the water in the lagoons at a lower level than the sea outside the wall, allowing the rivers to flow more freely through the city.

Some have voiced concerns the lagoons would become heavily polluted from the dirty, litter-strewn river water.

But Mr Imam Santoso, director of rivers and beaches at the Public Works Ministry, told The Straits Times that the floodwaters would be filtered before entering the lagoons. "Otherwise, it would be a total mess."

Engineers say greater efforts are needed to clean up the rivers before the water reaches the coast.

Mr Sannen said drainage canals and Jakarta Bay are filled with very thick layers of contaminated sludge. "One strategy is to do waste-water treatment, at the same time as dredging work."

And if water quality in the lagoons becomes a problem, then they could be aerated and flushed out with clean water from the sea by opening a series of gates, he added.

The idea of a giant sea wall was first mooted in 1994 by former Jakarta governor Soerjadi Soedirdja, but it has taken two decades for construction to begin because of problems with funding and land-clearance licences.

Seven private real estate giants have been granted building permits by the Jakarta government for the project.

The municipal government will get 5 per cent of every square metre of reclaimed land created by the private developers, and has promised to set aside that amount for building housing for fishermen and other social projects.

"The ministry's main concern is that the welfare of the thousands of fishermen in the area will not be affected and that there must be a plan for these fishermen if they have to be relocated," said Mr Yayat.

Green groups have also expressed concerns.

Mr Mukri Priatna, a national campaign manager at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, offered an alternative solution: Go back to nature and plant mangroves.

"If they are so insistent on having a concrete wall and posh residential areas, then their objective is money, not building a coastal flood-defence system as they claimed," he told The Straits Times.

The frustrated Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama told reporters: "When a minister and a provincial governor have a disagreement, what should we do? I will propose the President step in and make the decision."

Mr Yayat doubts President Joko Widodo can break the impasse as he, too, has to comply with laws.

At present, only a 70m section of the 5m-high dyke in Pluit sub-district of north Jakarta has been built. If the impasse is not resolved, its scaffolding could join other symbols of failed projects.

For some, the giant sea wall is the answer to easing their annual flood misery.

Ms Tri Asih, 40, a mother with two daughters who lives near the coast, said: "That would guarantee we would not see floods for decades ahead."