- Indonesia is relocating its capital city from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, a province on the island of Borneo.
- Jakarta is currently sinking by up to 6.7 inches per year, making it especially vulnerable to sea-level rise.
- The city also suffers from some of the world’s worst air quality, a problem that’s prevalent in Borneo as well.
- In Borneo, the burning and slashing of rainforests has released high amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Some environmentalists worry that the arrival of new residents could threaten remaining forests.
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Indonesia is in a race against sea-level rise, which threatens to submerge swaths of its capital city, Jakarta, by 2050. For more than a decade, a steady stream of floods has devastated homes, vehicles, and businesses, particularly in the city’s poorer neighbourhoods.
Some of those floods have been deadly. In 2007, a flood killed around 80 people in Jakarta and inundated an estimated 70,000 homes. Then in 2013, nearly 50 people died after heavy rains caused a local dike to collapse.
In April, the Indonesian government decided that the strain on the city had become too much. Officials announced a $US33 billion plan to relocate the capital, and this week they revealed that the new location will be in East Kalimantan, a province on the island of Borneo. Indonesia shares that island with two other nations: Malaysia and Brunei.
Construction on infrastructure for the new capital is set to begin in 2021, but environmentalists are already worried that it could endanger Borneo’s remaining forests and raise carbon emissions.
Borneo sees fewer floods than Jakarta
Jakarta suffers from some of the world’s worst air quality, though it’s a problem in Borneo as well.
And although Borneo has experienced its own flooding, the island is seen as a safer choice than Jakarta, where the land is sinking up to 6.7 inches per year. Only a quarter of Jakarta’s residents have access to piped water, which means many of them have to drill for it underground. The drilling process, which is also cheaper than paying water utilities, has caused the land to subside in low-lying coastal areas.
One of the biggest risks in building a new capital in Borneo, however, is that the deforestation that may involve could raise Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are already among the highest in the world.
Borneo’s forests consist largely of peatland, a type of wetland that holds about 12 times more carbon than other tropical rainforests. Just one hectare of peatland can release around 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide when it’s torn down.
Deforestation has been a problem in Boreno for decades, as its rainforests have been burned and slashed to make way for oil palm plantations. Between 1973 and 2015, Borneo lost around 16,000 square miles of its old-growth forests due to land clearing or burning for the plantations. (Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world and is found in everyday items like diesel fuel, snacks, cosmetics, and soap.)
That deforestation has released a steady torrent of carbon emissions, along with other forms of pollution such as carbon monoxide, cyanide, and ammonia. In 2010, land-clearing for oil palm plantations in Kalimantan released more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – about the same as the annual emissions of 28 million cars.
New construction could threaten the environment
Borneo’s deforestation has slowed in recent years as palm-oil prices have gone down. But some environmentalists fear that arrival of new residents on the island could threaten the remaining healthy forests.
As Indonesia’s new capital city, Borneo could take in up to 1.5 million new residents – mostly government employees and their families – from Jakarta, according to the nation’s planning minister. To accommodate these residents, Indonesia plans to develop hundreds of thousands of acres of land.
The nation’s planning minister has promised not to clear any protected forests, but developing on peatland can still release carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The land might also need to be drained to support the construction buildings and highways, which could make the turf drier and more vulnerable to fires. Road construction could further divide up forests.
“New roads cutting through forest areas break the continuity of the forest cover and typically more slash-and-burn deforestation happens in their vicinity,” Petr Matous, a lecturer at the University of Sydney, told Bloomberg. “Once a tropical forest canopy is broken and the local micro-climate changed, more fires are likely to occur.”
Locals had the same fear before the new capital was announced.
“All the land and forest that’s empty space now will be used,” a high school student in Central Kalimantan told the BBC in April. “Kalimantan is the lungs of the world, and I am worried we will lose the forest we have left.”
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