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Singapore plans to keep water at bay by building giant seawalls. © Getty Images

OPINION: Asia's megacities must learn from Indonesia's capital move

Few others can afford Singapore's pricey climate crisis plan

It is often said that the battle against climate change will be won or lost in Asia. Yet this month has offered an unusually stark example of the unequal terms on which this battle will be fought, as Singapore and Indonesia outlined bold but contrasting plans to cope with rising seas.

On August 18, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used martial language to justify a swathe of expensive new infrastructure projects to protect his island city-state.

At a cost of more than 100 billion Singapore dollars ($72 billion), over the next century Singapore plans to keep water at bay by building everything from giant new seawalls to Dutch-style "polders", or reclaimed land protected by dykes.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo then confirmed on August 26 that he would shift Indonesia's capital from Jakarta, moving it to a new location in the state of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

Chaotic water extraction means Jakarta is sinking fast, while Jokowi aims to use the move to lessen the economic dominance of Java, the island where Jakarta is based. At this stage his idea is only to move the government, not the capital's 10 million residents. Even so, climate pessimism remains a major factor in his decision.

Singapore and Indonesia thus represent two starkly different adaptation strategies. The former plans to spend whatever it takes. Sadly neither Indonesia nor other developing economies are likely to be able to follow suit.

Therefore, the success of Indonesia's model -- beginning to plan to move populations away from the coasts -- is arguably more important for Asia's future.

Scientific predictions of sea level changes are both inexact and terrifying. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. body tasked with climate scenarios, says oceans will probably rise by about half a meter this century.

But this is a cautious view. Many other experts fear warming oceans and melting ice will together bring much worse outcomes.

Scientists suggest warming must be kept well below 2 C, and hopefully below 1.5 C. Presently the world is nowhere close to hitting these targets. Singapore's technocrats are clearly preparing for the worst, hence why Changi airport's newest terminal will be built 5.5 meters above sea level.

Whatever level the oceans reach, Asia will bear the brunt, given that its coastline bristles with vulnerable megacities. India's future is especially precarious, with Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai all at risk. A host of others around the region face serious problems, from Bangkok and Dhaka to Karachi and Manila.

Singapore's plan shows one way of coping, namely throwing money around. Its government has financial options too, from issuing climate bonds to dipping into its hefty national reserves.

Many poorer cities also have ambitious Singapore-style plans, on paper at least. Mumbai, for instance, wants to build a series of costly protective seawalls.

Elsewhere there are plenty of wise steps that could be taken. Political leaders can raise awareness of the threat to come. A plethora of new construction is needed, both to protect urban regions physically and to improve areas like sewage and natural drainage.

Banking and insurance industries have an especially important role, argues Lauren Sorkin, Asia head of the 100 Resilient Cities program, a body helping cities prepare for the climate crisis. Without access to credit for new construction or disaster coverage when things go wrong, the odds of emerging markets managing to adapt are slim.

Unfortunately the probability that all these steps will be taken in time is slim too. In theory, spending on new infrastructure and renewable energy could be a boon for developing nations.

Bukit Soeharto, a forested area in East Kalimantan Province, are to be the center of Indonesia's new capital. (Photo by Jun Suzuki)

But even if the likes of Indonesia and India could find the money, their rickety governments still lack the state capacity needed to adapt successfully. In this sense the crisis of climate change will reveal a deep failure of governance in such countries. A city like Jakarta is simply too unwieldy to be reformed. Therefore it has to be moved.

Climate change is underpriced as a risk for financial markets more generally, a far greater long-term challenge than current rising geopolitical tensions over trade.

Megacities are the engines of the world economy. Asia's urban centers will not be swept away overnight. But as the world's cities find themselves inundated by water and battered by storms, the cost could top $1 trillion by 2050, according to C40 Cities, a US-based charity.

By midcentury the real risk is that emerging Asia's chaotic, unplanned urbanization will run slap-bang into a wave of chaotic, unplanned climate-related people movement. Hundreds of millions of Indians are already set to shift from rural to urban areas in the coming decades -- just at the point when coastal cities will be hit by climate-related problems in earnest.

The case for greater action today is unarguable. Shifting huge numbers of people away from coastal areas will prove far costlier and more troublesome than investing upfront to prevent and adapt.

But in the end moving people will still be a major part of the answer to Asia's climate crisis, both by enlarging existing inland cities and building new ones. Indonesia has taken this step earlier than most. Elsewhere people will end up voting with their feet. It would be wise to help them prepare.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

See Nikkei Asian Review article . . .