Concerns mount over delays in key Jakarta projects

New Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama may have shown he can take on bureaucrats and Islamic militants alike, but a multibillion-dollar question hangs over whether he has the vision to understand what has to be done to rejuvenate the capital.

Experts worry that instead of properly educating himself and playing a more active part in planning meetings, the media sensation known as Ahok is blowing hot and cold on infrastructure projects they insist are key to saving Jakarta from itself.

His latest target has been the $50 billion National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD), designed to enhance flood protection for the rapidly sinking city and create a new environment for a fifth of its 10.2 million people.

The 15-year NCICD project involves building a 32km seawall across Jakarta Bay, inside of which will be 17 artificial islands and a series of lagoons to take the outflow from the 13 rivers that drain the city and convert it into a potable water supply.

It will also mean rehabilitating the water reticulation network. Although it covers 60 per cent of the city, the age of the pipes is so variable, ranging up to 100 years old, that pushing up the pressure causes blowouts.

The brainchild of Dutch engineers, the seawall is seen by independent experts as the only way of rescuing a metropolis subsiding by an average of 7cm a year. Says one consultant: "If they don't do this now, there will be no North Jakarta."

Mr Purnama, however, questions its viability - and seems to be getting public support from a host of like-minded sceptics who also, perhaps naturally, see it as a potential source of big-ticket corruption and beneficial only to the wealthy. Doubts about flood solution

Just last month, the governor told a meeting of hydrologists he was not convinced the seawall would solve perennial flooding problems, noting the way the South Koreans struggled with a similar seawall where the reservoir turned into a sea of mud.

What he did not appear to understand, however, is that managing mud and silt will always be part of the general maintenance of the ponds behind the seawall, just as it is with the dam reservoirs of most of the hydroelectric power stations across Asia.

As it is, if nothing is done, the mouths of Jakarta's rivers will become so silted up they will sink below sea level and the water will back up, creating a new flooding threat at a time when engineers are finally getting on top of the problem.

In 2002 and 2007, more than 70 per cent of the city was flooded. In 2012, despite an even heavier rainfall - and a greater run-off from the Bogor catchment area to the south - only 36 per cent was inundated.

That can be put down to a concerted dredging and riverbank clean-up programme, along with the completion of the East Jakarta Flood Canal. The only significant flooding was due to a delay in building a tunnel connecting the canal to the Ciliwung River.

How President Joko Widodo views the seawall is unclear, given the funding role the central government will have to play. But it was often said during his curtailed term as governor that the only way he could secure the future of Jakarta was as president.

And there is a lot more at stake than just Jakarta itself.

Together with the dormitory municipalities of Bogor, Depok, Tanggerang and Bekasi, the greater Jakarta area population is expected to swell from the current 28 million to 50 million over the next 30 years.

"If the capital region is going to function, they have to plan now," says one foreign engineer, who suggests the central government assemble a whole new team, separate from that involved in national development, just to work on the Jakarta of the future.

"All levels of government have to pull together. It is not just this project, but a whole raft of things," he says, pointing to transportation and water reticulation alone.

"These decisions should have been made in the 1970s, that's why the city is in such a mess."

Little done to better roads

Back then, when life expectancy was only 47 years and not the 70 it is today, new president Suharto's attention was commendably focused on improving health and education and making the country self-sufficient in rice.

But even during the oil boom years, comparatively little was done to upgrade the country's road network, evidenced by the fact that the all-important Jakarta-Surabaya expressway traversing the heart of Java is expected to be finished only in 2018.

In Jakarta, the land area given over to roads is just 6 per cent, far short of the 15 per cent norm for most modern cities.

Even Bangkok, which was originally designed as a water city, is into double digits, with a super-efficient mass rail transit system as well.

On that score, Jakarta is just getting started. The first phase of the mass rail transit system is under construction at last - but not due for completion until 2020 - and the city government is still dithering over the revived US$800 million (S$1.06 billion) inner city monorail project.

Critics say Mr Purnama rarely goes to monorail meetings and when he does make decisions, he often retracts them a week later. "He's a darling of the media because he always says what he thinks," says one participant. "But it's time he became more mature."

More importantly, for those deeply worried about infrastructure issues, it is also time he demonstrated a clear vision of the city's future. The seawall and the monorail, they say, are good places to start.

This article was first published on December 30, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.