Jakarta’s seawall megaproject and the politicisation of land subsidence 

New research led by Oxford Geography DPhil student, Thanti Octavianti, offers analysis of ‘disaster capitalism’ in the context of Jakarta’s flood policy.

“Jakarta slums seen from the sea”  Source: Przemek Pietrak. Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Jakarta is one of the fastest sinking cities in the world: parts of the city are subsiding at an average rate of 15 cm per year. To prevent the city from sinking further, the Government of Indonesia, in collaboration with the Government of the Netherlands, launched the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) plan. This USD 40 billion project, designed by a consortium of Dutch firms, consists of a 32-km offshore seawall plus 5100-ha of land reclamation. The privately led reclamation is justified to fund a significant portion of the seawall.

A new paper, published in Water Alternatives, as part of Thanti Octavianti’s doctoral research at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, examines the (ab)use of the land subsidence crisis to justify Jakarta’s seawall megaproject.

Informed by the concept of ‘critical juncture’ – an analytical approach focusing on the limited time period in which actors’ decisions have a higher probability of affecting a particular outcome – this research seeks to analyse how the framing of the sinking crisis by political actors can sustain the policy preference for the seawall, despite the many criticisms the project has received.
Drawing data from newspaper discourse, interviews, and policy documents, the paper reveals that the problematisation of land subsidence, vis-à-vis the sinking crisis, was used as a discursive tool to help justify the ambitious NCICD plan. This study analyses the decisive period, or ‘critical juncture’, that occurred when the project was subject to a 6-month evaluation, following a corruption scandal in 2016. The research considers both (i) the development of the crisis discourse in the mass media and (ii) the interaction of political agencies.

Problematisation of land subsidence as a crisis

Historical analysis of newspaper articles on land subsidence from 1 January 2007 to 31 July 2017 suggests that the issue was present infrequently prior to a major flood in 2013 (Figure 1). Subsidence gained the highest interest during 2016 when the critical juncture occurred. Further analysis of these subsidence-related articles reveals a strong association between land subsidence and the sinking threat followed by NCICD and reclamation topics (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Number of newspaper articles containing land subsidence increased substantially after the 2013 major flood (it reached its peak in 2016 when the project was evaluated).

Figure 2. Distribution of topics associated with land subsidence per year (2007-July 2017). Problematisation of subsidence as a crisis is the highest followed by the NCICD and reclamation topics.

Interaction of political agencies
The research identifies that at least five stakeholders play an important role in the policymaking process of NCICD: the Indonesian government, foreign experts, private sectors, NGO activists, and academics.

The interaction of stakeholders involved and their main narratives about NCICD, measured by the frequency of newspaper articles, can be divided into three stages: pre-, during, and post-critical juncture (Figure 3). Policymakers had been constantly promoting NCICD to solve the sinking crisis in the three stages. The promotion of Dutch expertise in the project was notable in the pre-critical juncture. However, the social and environmental impacts of NCICD voiced by NGOs and some concerned academics gained more prominence during and after the juncture, weakening the discourse on the excellence of the Dutch. This shows that the constrained environment was relaxed during the evaluation period thus creating an opportunity for critics to actively voice their concerns, challenging the advocates’ narratives and swaying public opinion. Property developers’ narratives were quite dominant before the critical juncture, promoting the aspiration of Jakarta as a world-class city. However, during the juncture, their main narrative changed, emphasizing the difficulty of cancelLing the project due to its legal status. The narrative shift indicates that developers were negotiating the fate of the reclamation with policymakers.

Figure 3. Three stages (pre, during, and post-critical juncture) of political interaction in the NCICD policymaking process. Note: Each stakeholder promoted one main narrative as shown inside the pentagon. The changing of dominance of the narratives in the three stages is depicted with the weighs of arrows: light, medium, and bold.

Having examined the public discourse around the land subsidence issue and analysed political interactions during the project’s evaluation period, or the critical juncture, the paper concludes that the project’s proponents convincingly used the sinking crisis to justify the seawall plan. In addition to the powerful discourse built by the proponents of the NCICD, the preference towards the seawall policy was attributable to other factors, such as the project’s fit with the city’s infrastructural approach in the management of flood risks and the lack of policy alternatives offered by the project’s critics.

It seems that the NCICD is here to stay until a crisis, be it political or natural, generates another critical juncture. Future junctures, if unable to introduce a policy change, will at least accumulate learning and contribute to shaping a new policy context for the management of flood risk in Jakarta.

Much of the attention given to the NCICD, however, should not distract from urgent need to address the subsidence problem. Land subsidence is purported to be caused by overexploitation of deep groundwater due to insufficient water services. While the relative contribution of other factors, namely natural consolidation of alluvial soil and tectonic activities, are not yet known, we argue that providing 100% piped water supply is a no-regret policy that should help slow down subsidence.

It is important to investigate the cause of subsidence and simultaneously provide piped water supply to Jakarta’s population. Without serious policy instruments to stop subsidence immediately, it may be too costly, or worse, too late, to fix the problem.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, please refer to the journal article: Octavianti, T. and Charles, K. 2018. Disaster capitalism? Examining the politicisation of land subsidence crisis in pushing Jakarta’s seawall megaproject. Water Alternatives 11(2): 394-420

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