Politics Travel

Jakarta: Can it keep growing?

Jakarta is a paradox. Of all the places we’ve lived this year it has been our least favourite. The air is heavy and hard to breathe for the pollution. A thick grey haze obscures the horizon most days. Traffic clogs the city at all times of day and spits out engine fumes at anyone who dares to walk anywhere. As I sit here writing I’m watching the morning traffic crawl along Jalan Senopatti, wondering how the millions of Jakartan’s put up with it everyday. It’s a difficult place to live, and it’s certainly lived up to our expectation that the only reason you come to Jakarta is to leave. And with so much incredible natural beauty in Indonesia’s various islands, why would you come to Jakarta, except for to transfer through?

Yet at the same time it’s been fascinating. Indonesia is a fast growing economy, which is expected to break into the top 10 economies in the world within the next decade. It has a rapidly growing middle class (a BBC correspondent recently reported on the phenomenon of ‘crazy rich’ Indonesians), which makes it an ideal place to set up a new business. It has already produced four unicorns.

It has achieved all this success in spite of the challenges inherent to its geography – more than 267 million people spread over countless islands – and in spite of the challenges posed by its disastrous capital city.

I spent time exploring the city and trying to learn about what makes it the way it is today, but living in Jakarta has left me with more questions than any genuine understanding.

The Colonial City

I took a trip up to North Jakarta one day to visit the old city and harbour area. The Jakarta History Museum is housed in the old Dutch Stadhuis and tells the story of a city which was inhabited through the centuries by a Hindu kingdom, Islamic Sultanate, Portuguese explorers, Dutch merchants, Chinese laborers and Japanese forces. This part of the city was sculpted from the many rivers that traversed the area by the Dutch into a series of canals and reclaimed marshland to form ‘Batavia’.

Batavia’s downfall came from environmental mismanagement. Thousands died during a malaria pandemic, which was caused by the increase in stagnant water in the city – a result of deforestation from the sugar industry and the increased use of fishponds in the north of the city. The city’s crumbling infrastructure today has the potential to be as dangerous a health hazard to the millions living throughout the city. So I wondered what impacts redevelopment and restoration of this old colonial quarter could have on the city?

The Sinking City

We’ve all heard about and seen the striking images of Venice covered in water, but Jakarta is sinking at a much more dramatic rate.

While water is such an important feature of the city’s topography, it also has the potential to destroy it. Forty percent of Jakarta now lies below sea level. In one area of the city, the sea is literally being held back by a wall. Behind this wall lay warehouses, communities and luxury apartments.

A combination of climate-change induced sea level rise and illegal well digging threatens the city. Neighbourhoods regularly flood and the rivers lap menacingly high on their banks. Millions will be devastated if the wall fails or there is an extreme weather event.

Most surprisingly, luxury apartments are still being built right next to the wall. Who are buying these and how are developers getting permissions to build these?

The Growing City

We’ve lived in a lot of polluted and badly planned cities this year. But Jakarta was particularly special.

Jakarta today is growing at a rate of 11 people per hour and all the problems we experienced – the pollution, the traffic, the lack of public space – all prove it struggles to keep pace. It reminded me of other second tier emerging market cities that have grown much faster than their capacity to absorb – places much like Nairobi.

Like most emerging markets, Jakarta has benefited from technological leap-frogging. Digital infrastructure has moved more quickly than physical infrastructure. Apps like Go Jek, one of Indonesia’s unicorns, offer transport, food delivery, groceries, handyman services, even their own payments system. They provide essential services and a raft of job opportunities, which make living in the city bearable.

Improvements are a foot. Most people we met believe that the new MRT system the city is building will greatly improve conditions. But like Crossrail, when this will be completed is a mystery. What impact this will on the thousands who rely on bike taxis for employment is also unclear.

The Future City

Big questions remain for me: can technological advances halt the extreme degradation affecting the city (and others like it) in my lifetime? And can Indonesia continue to grow apace despite all the problems that hinder it? And how long will the population put up with them?

I want to be positive about the city. I want to believe, for instance, that the electric car revolution will banish polluting vehicles from the streets of our cities. That they will become affordable enough for Grab and Go Jek drivers to trade in their old mopeds for new clean versions. That green industries will become an increasingly important and viable employment option. Same for the city’s public transport, water, waste management, planning and economic challenges.

But they are significant challenges. While Indonesia has shown some promise, taking and sustaining action is urgent. All of it will require the right political will.

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