December 22, 2014 / 2:36 PM / 5 years ago

The Great Wall of Jakarta

JAKARTA(Reuters) - Two weeks after his narrow win in Indonesia’s presidential election in July, Joko Widodo, though still months away from taking office, jump-started an effort to save Jakarta from drowning.

Labourers move stones to reinforce one of the city's many canals to help prevent flooding in central Jakarta October 28, 2014. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Minutes of a July 25 meeting with city officials and ministers from the outgoing administration show that Widodo endorsed the most ambitious feature of a plan that had been on the drawing boards for nearly two years: a “Great Sea Wall” in the shape of Indonesia’s national symbol, the Garuda bird of Hindu mythology.

The private sector would be “the main actor” in financing the Great Sea Wall, whose total cost could rise to $40 billion over three decades. Widodo wanted the group to quickly set a ground-breaking date.

Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, wanting a signature achievement to burnish the legacy of his administration, obliged him. The Great Sea Wall was launched on Oct. 9 – two weeks before Widodo was sworn in.

The centerpiece of the plan will be an outer seawall built on reclaimed land several miles out in Jakarta Bay, according to a final version of the Master Plan reviewed by Reuters.

A “Waterfront City,” with office towers, hotels and luxury housing, will be built atop the seawall complex, covering up to 10,000 acres - nearly half the size of Manhattan. Selling real estate on the Giant Sea Wall would be the main financing vehicle for the wall itself, which would be completed by 2022.

Meeting that deadline “will be one of the most challenging hydraulic civil works that has been carried out worldwide,” the Master Plan says.

The first phase of the project is a $2 billion, 20-mile inner seawall now being built just behind an existing wall that is crumbling as it sinks into the sea. This first phase, which is supposed to be completed by 2018, will pay for new pumping stations and raise the level of riverbank dikes throughout the city.

One of the most challenging features of the plan is to convert Jakarta Bay into a reservoir enclosed by the outer Giant Sea Wall. New pumping stations will pour water in the reservoir from the rivers and canals now stagnating below sea level in the city.

Planners envision the reservoir one day becoming a sustainable source of drinking water for the city. But first, Jakarta would have to build massive wastewater treatment and water purification plants. Until that happens, Jakarta’s rivers and canals, among the world’s most polluted, would spew filthy water into the bay.

That scenario is one of the main criticisms of the Waterfront City. Sceptics “are afraid that it would turn into a giant septic tank behind the Giant Sea Wall,” said Victor Coenen, Indonesia chief of Witteveen+Bos, the Dutch engineering and consulting firm that helped design the Giant Sea Wall project.

Acting Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama is one of them. “I honestly have doubts about” the Giant Sea Wall, he told an audience of hydrologists on Oct. 31. “Flushing the mud will be very problematic.”

Corruption, endemic in Indonesia, will also be “a real challenge” for what would be one of Indonesia’s biggest-ever infrastructure projects, the governor said.

Jakarta will need to assess the Giant Sea Wall against “a range of options to see if it makes economic sense,” said Ashvin Dayal, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation in Asia, which is funding a number of climate resilience projects in the region. Giant dikes can “create a fail-safe mentality.”

Reporting by Bill Tarrant; edited by John Blanton.

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