Professor Nick Rawlinson is fascinated by the shifting crust of the planet, the jostle of tectonic plates, the rupture of faults and the shaking of the earth.
As a seismologist, he uses instruments that convert vibrations from deep in the earth into the electronic ‘signatures’ of an earthquake.
Beyond the fascination, however, Rawlinson is keenly aware of the human and economic cost of natural hazards. Half Bornean, he recounts the shock of hearing of the 2015 Sabah earthquake. “Part of the summit of Mount Kinabalu fell, killing 18 people including schoolchildren and their teachers.
“From that point on, I refocused my work away from a more fundamental understanding of earth processes towards working with Indonesian and Malaysian scientists in Borneo on earthquake hazard.”
Indonesia experiences around 300 significant natural disasters per year. In recent times, one of the most devastating was in 2018 when an earthquake and tsunami largely destroyed the city of Palu, killing 4,500 people, resulting in 200,000 refugees, and costing the Indonesian economy an estimated US$911 million.
“Natural hazards like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are unstoppable,” explains Rawlinson. “But the impact can be changed if the built environment has been constructed to mitigate their effects.”
So when, in 2019, the Indonesian parliament announced it would move its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan in Borneo and build a new city, Nusantara, Rawlinson and his Indonesian partners saw a rare opportunity to advise on building with safety in mind.
Indonesia’s goal is to build an ‘eco-city’ that will be the hub of stable governance in the country for the decades and centuries to come. It’s a bold ambition, and not without its critics – concerns have been raised about destruction of the rainforest in Borneo, about cost and about what will happen to Jakarta itself.
“Notwithstanding these concerns, the fact is that Jakarta is now a very risky city to live in,” says Rawlinson. “Uncontrolled urbanisation has led to overcrowding, pollution and regular flooding. The city is literally sinking. Nearly half of it is below sea level and the extraction of groundwater has led to further subsidence. Add to this the threat of earthquakes and eruptions from nearby volcanoes and you have a perilous situation.”
On the surface, Nusantara looks like a safer setting. But scientists are worried about its proximity to the Palu earthquake and the confluence of four tectonic plates near the site.