Saving Indonesia’s Capital A Simple but Genius Plan for Jakarta

Is it possible to save the megacity Jakarta …about:blank

… which is sinking into the sea …about:blank

… and is threatened by the consequences of the climate crisis …about:blank

… and a toxic brew of congestion, garbage and air pollution?about:blank

It can be saved.

One architect is fighting for Jakarta’s future.

Saving Indonesia’s Capital A Simple but Genius Plan for Jakarta

Jakarta is sinking into the sea and suffers from terrible congestion and a trash problem. The Indonesian government is building a new city in response. But one architect wants to save her home – and the idea could become a model for other cities threatened by the climate crisis.

By Maria Stöhr and Muhammad Fadli (Photos) in Jakarta


Global Societies 

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.All Articles

Jakarta’s biggest problem can easily be seen from the air on approach to the city’s airport. The sea is eating its way into coastal neighborhoods, the land sinking into the water, bit by bit. You can even see the huge wall that has been embedded in the ground at the coast to keep flooding at bay.

Video: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

Officially, 10 million people live here in Jakarta on the island of Java. If the outer districts are included, the population is closer to 20 to 30 million. But this place that so many call home, the capital of Indonesia, the main city in a country made up of tens of thousands of islands and a total population of 270 million, is struggling to survive. There are too many people, there’s too much traffic, there’s garbage everywhere, the air is polluted – and then there’s the climate crisis on top of that, with rising sea levels and unpredictable rains.

Northern Jakarta

On an early Monday morning in October, deep-sea fishermen are returning to the large industrial port in the north of the city after six months at sea. The men get out of boats painted in red and blue, they are wearing rubber boots and gloves, and cigarettes hang from their mouths. They unload frozen tuna, barracuda, blue marlin and spearfish.

Jakarta is a city where people have always lived with and from the water, from fishing, as sellers of dried mackerel, as workers in the shipyards. But the Indonesian government took too long to realize that water long ago ceased to be merely a source of survival and now poses a serious threat to the city.

Kartinem lives in a bamboo hut on stilts in the water. She makes a living selling dried fish.

Kartinem lives in a bamboo hut on stilts in the water. She makes a living selling dried fish. Foto: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

Fishermen clean swordfish at a processing center at Jakarta's industrial harbor.

Fishermen clean swordfish at a processing center at Jakarta’s industrial harbor. Foto: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

Jakarta is located in a delta and its topography is flat, with around 40 percent of its area located below sea level. In recent decades, the city has grown rapidly, with twice as many people living there now as in 1975 – and the infrastructure hasn’t kept up: Drinking water and sewage systems don’t reach large parts of the population. The majority has no running water and thus uses pumps to access groundwater. The result is that the soil, muddy and soft already, subsides by 10 to 15 centimeters a year. At the same time, climate change is causing sea levels to rise. Some are predicting that 95 percent of North Jakarta could be below sea level by 2050. Along with other megacities in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok, Singapore, Manila and Saigon, Jakarta is one of the fastest sinking cities in the world.

The concrete flood wall has been in place for several years, and it has been raised three times already. Dams, large pumps and retention basins are being built. But they provide little more than a temporary solution.

Children climb on one of the seawalls that are supposed to protect the Muara Baru neighborhood from the floods. Behind them lies Jakarta Bay.

Children climb on one of the seawalls that are supposed to protect the Muara Baru neighborhood from the floods. Behind them lies Jakarta Bay. Foto: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

In early November, flooding once again hit many parts of Jakarta, like here in the north, in the district of Muara Baru.

In early November, flooding once again hit many parts of Jakarta, like here in the north, in the district of Muara Baru. Foto: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

For this story, we visited some of those most affected by the flooding and the transformation of Jakarta. We also met with people who no longer want to hear the predictions of the demise of their city and have instead set out to seek solutions.

The destruction caused by the water is clearly visible in Muara Baru, one of the oldest parts of the city, located in the north. The ground there is subsiding by up to 20 centimeters a year, and it is visible to the naked eye when walking through the streets and alleyways. Older buildings are now often more than a meter lower than newer buildings, with stairs leading down to their front doors. What was once the first floor has slid down into the earth to become a basement level. Every year, when the rains come, the water here is up to two meters deep in the apartments, with the most recent flooding hitting the area in early November. Because of the constant threat of high water, many people place their refrigerators and electrical appliances on stools, boards or small tables to keep them safe.

Jakarta is crisscrossed by more than 15 rivers and canals. The shacks of the poorest city residents are located directly on the rivers – and they are the first to be hit when waters rise.

Irma, 65, lives together with her daughter Ita, 36, in the Poncol neighborhood. Irma bought land directly on the Krukut River 15 years ago. At the time, she was aware that it would be prone to flooding. “But I couldn’t afford anything else,” she says. The neighborhood, with its narrow, trash-filled of alleyways – a place where monitor lizards and cats fight over scraps of food – is located directly across the river from the expensive Marriott Hotel.

Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

The impoverished and the rich live in close proximity, but with one big difference: Modern buildings are much better protected from the floods.

Irma and Ita run an outdoor kiosk stand, where they sell spinach fried in oil and tempeh. Gado-gado, an Indonesian vegetable salad, costs 15,000 Indonesian rupiah, or about one euro. They sell their wares across to the other side of the river with the use of a rope hoist.

A severe flood struck in 2007, Ita recalls. In 2010, the water was two and a half meters high. It was also bad in 2021. In the past, the women say, the great flood came every five years. Now, one comes almost every year, sometimes two.

“We try to move all the electrical equipment to the second floor in time. But sometimes the flooding is faster. Then things get destroyed. Once, the water carried away a toddler, but luckily he survived.”

“Afterward, we spend days shoveling the mud out of the apartment. The walls of the apartment are damp for weeks. The stench is terrible. We then often have diarrhea and skin rashes for two weeks.”

There’s a word that often comes up when you talk to the residents of Jakarta: Adaptation. “We have adapted,” says Irma. “We’re not leaving. Where else are we going to go?” A few kilometers from here, on the city’s Ciliwung River, Augustine, 24, has her newborn baby in her arms. “We’ll take it as it comes,” she says. “If our home were dry, it would tend to confuse us, we’ve gotten so used to it.”

The Ciliwung River carries water from the mountainous regions of Java. But rising sea levels are making it harder for water to drain into the sea and is causing it to back up in Jakarta. And into the huts on the banks of the river. Into Augustine’s apartment.

The government has been threatening for years to demolish Augustine’s home and to relocate residents to apartments on the outskirts of the city. Augustine doesn’t want to move, despite the floods. She fears she won’t be able to find any work on the outskirts, that she will be cut off. Not knowing when the government will send the excavators, Augustine lives in uncertainty.

“We used to wash our clothes in the river and drink the water,” Augustine says. Now, the water is too dirty. We now only use it for fishing. The air is also bad. The city used to seem healthier to me.”

Augustine isn’t wrong: Jakarta’s waters are polluted with feces and trash – everything is discarded into the water. Fishermen talk about how they used to go out with their small boats off the coast and come back every day with a catch of 20 kilos. Now, they say, they only catch three kilos on a good day.

And the problems don’t stop with the water. The city is experiencing explosive growth and the traffic is highly congested, with around half the population commuting downtown to work each day. Many spend three or four hours a day in the car. Because of the traffic jams, some commuters have to start their journey in the middle of the night to make it to work on time. Expansion of the public transport system is underway, but the network is still so patchy that most people can’t do without their cars.

In the early morning and again late in the afternoon, crowds of people pour into the subways and onto Jakarta's streets during the rush hour.

In the early morning and again late in the afternoon, crowds of people pour into the subways and onto Jakarta’s streets during the rush hour. Foto: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

For many residents of Jakarta, sitting in four-hour-long traffic jams is the workday norm.

For many residents of Jakarta, sitting in four-hour-long traffic jams is the workday norm. Foto: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

This is also reflected in the poor air quality in the city. In June, Jakarta was ranked as having some of the worst air pollution in the world. Pollutant levels that cause asthma and skin diseases were 27 times greater in June than the limits set by the World Health Organization. In a landmark ruling last year, a Jakarta court ruled that the government was denying its citizens the right to clean air.

At what point does a city become uninhabitable? At what point do you have to leave?

“The burden on everyone who lives in Jakarta is high,” says Sidik Purnomo, the spokesman for the New Capital Authority, the agency responsible for implementing an insane project: the construction of a new capital city.

Sidik Pramono is promoting the new capital that Indonesia plans to build by 2024: Nusantara on the neighboring island of Borneo. Foto: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

Plans for the project have been on the drawing board for decades, but it is Joko Widodo, the current president, who has decided to take on the challenge. Nusantara is to be the name of the city, which will have 1.5 million inhabitants and will be located on the neighboring island of Borneo, where, unlike Jakarta, there are no earthquakes or floods.

Currently, heavy machinery is clearing managed forests on the island, though construction is lagging behind schedule. Still, Widodo has announced that the government will move in 2024, at which point Nusantara’s city center should be completed.

In a café in Jakarta, Purnoma talks about renewable energies, particularly solar and wind technology, from which electricity will be drawn in Nusantara in the future. About sustainability and green parks. About how everything in the city should be accessible in 10 minutes by public transport. It sounds a bit like redemption from the unwieldy behemoth that Jakarta has become.

Critics argue that nature is being destroyed to build the city. They say the government is having trouble financing the construction, especially now, in times of crises and a decline in the currency exchange rate. They argue that President Widodo is just trying to create a monument for his legacy.

“Building a new capital doesn’t do anything for the current capital city,” says Elisa Sutanudjaja, an architect in Jakarta who criticizes the project for being elitist, saying that most of Jakarta’s residents wouldn’t move to the new city. “They will stay here. The government should be putting money in their hands.” Initially, only around 200,000 people are expected to move to Nusantara. Given that an estimated 20 million people currently live in Jakarta, that would be only 1 percent of the population.

Sutanudjaja is one of the people who have no intention of leaving their home city. “We have to find creative solutions and adapt to the new realities,” she says. There it is again: adapt.

It is Sutanudjaja’s view that if you want to save the city, you have to start with the people who are most vulnerable to disasters. “These are the poor in the city,” she says. The architect has demonstrated how this can be done with a housing project. In 2016, authorities cleared the Akuarium neighborhood in northern Jakarta and the residents were evicted to the outskirts of the city, where they were offered social housing. They reasoned that the old neighborhood had been too badly ravaged by flooding and that the shacks there had been built illegally.

But, the architect explains, people who have lived all their lives in tiny, single-story houses, people who are used to strong community structures in the heart of the city are going to have trouble adapting to isolated high-rise apartments that are lacking in communal spaces.

The architect protested together with local residents in front of the Presidential Palace against the evictions. She also presented a counterproposal: Together with the people affected, she planned apartment blocks, four stories each, with a total of 241 apartments. And they were to be located right at the location they were being evicted from – their old quarter.

Architect Elisa Sutanudjaja is breaking new ground with her housing project. She wants to be a role model for other creative projects that have the same goal: To save Jakarta.

Architect Elisa Sutanudjaja is breaking new ground with her housing project. She wants to be a role model for other creative projects that have the same goal: To save Jakarta. Foto: 

Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

The apartment blocks in Sutanudjaja's "vertical village"

The apartment blocks in Sutanudjaja’s “vertical village” Foto: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

“Yes, in the end, we also ended up building high-rise apartments,” says Sutanudjaja. “But the difference was that we sat down together with the residents. We explained to them that their shacks wouldn’t be good places to live in the future because of the floods.” She says she had to use language that people understand to describe climate change and the effect it has on their lives. Because few people here are aware of why the water is rising ever higher.

The buildings are built to withstand the floods and are built above flood levels. And they are organized communally, modeled on life in the old neighborhood. There are wide hallways where people can meet. One person has set up a kiosk shop in front of his apartment. Two mothers are sitting in front of their apartments with their children. There is a laundry facility for all residents on the ground floor as well as meeting rooms and a library. The construction costs were around $4 million, financed by a fund of real estate companies and foundations.

Everyone in the building has responsibilities for cleaning the communal areas. Sutanudjaja calls it the “vertical village.” The residents are organized in a cooperative. They pay a small rent equivalent to about 10 euros a month, part of which goes to reserves to repair future flood damage to the buildings.

“Politicians need to understand that they can’t make decisions over people’s heads. Simply moving people somewhere else against their will won’t work,” says Sutanudjaja. “Jakarta, the neighborhoods, the quarters, it’s all their city. They’re at home here.”

Video: Muhammad Fadli / DER SPIEGEL

If you ask Sutanudjaja if that can really exist – a future for Jakarta – she raises her voice. “The people in Jakarta aren’t victims,” she says. “They are resilient, adaptable and they learn.”

Then she adds that the things that work with her small-scale housing project are also possible in Jakarta on a larger scale. And in other places around the world. She says people have to be told in clear language what they are facing as a result of the climate crisis. They need to be pulled into dialogue. What do we do about it? What can we still prevent? And where do we need to respond? After that, people can get to work on a solution. 

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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