If patience is a virtue it should also have a name.
For this story it has to be civil engineer A G Ismail, boss of the huge Suramadu project in East Java where the substance of a 20-year nation-linking vision is slowly sliding across the sea.
Suramadu is the 5.4 kilometre long bridge being built between Indonesia’s second biggest city and the oblong island of Madura to the northeast.
When launched by then President Megawati Sukarnoputri in August 2003 it was hoped vehicles would be whizzing across the straits in a matter of moments by 2006. Now the completion date is September 2008.
However good the pre-planning and computer-based projections, all big constructions everywhere in the world are prone to unforeseen stuff-ups, and Suramadu has had its share.
In July last year a girder suddenly collapsed when a crane swung around, injuring nine workers. Delays followed.
Then some of the 100-kilogram aluminium rods used as sacrificial anodes allegedly vanished. These are used to protect steel exposed to seawater. The police were called and are still investigating.
But the really big problem that stalled construction for a year was administrative and financial.
Funding for the US$ 320 million project is complex and involves the governments of Indonesia, East Java and China. The latter is providing a soft loan of US$ 177 million under a strategic infrastructure agreement with Indonesia.
The loan was due to be disbursed by China last year. However it was reported that the Indonesian government couldn’t meet some of the lender’s conditions so the cash stopped flowing.
The money drip has just restarted and the thump-thump pulse of the pile drivers is throbbing again across the still waters, audible proof that Suramadu lives.
“No I’m not frustrated,” said a relaxed Ismail in his office close to the ramp on the Surabaya side of the bridge.
“We didn’t sit around doing nothing. We were able to get on with some design work. Of course I kept going to Jakarta to ask for the money to be released, and now we’ve got it.”
But apparently not yet enough to finish the job. Suramadu is being built from both sides. So far 16 spans, or piers to support the causeway have been constructed from Madura and 17 from Surabaya. The money released will pay for six more from each side. A total of 81 have to be built.
In the centre will be two 141 metre high bow-legged pylons, the tallest constructions in East Java. They’ll be used to hang thick steel cables to support the centre of the bridge 35 metres above the water and allow ships to pass beneath. In engineering terms this is called a ‘cable-stayed’ construction.
When it’s all complete (no-one on the project says ‘if’) it will indeed be an impressive and graceful sight, and hopefully a tourist attraction. That’s the idea of the East Java government that is also planning hotels, a museum, diorama, shopping mall, fairground and other attractions. These will be on a 100-hectare site around the tollgate on the Surabaya side.
“We’ve managed to acquire 97 per cent of the land we need on the Madura side and 70 per cent on Surabaya,” said Ismail. “We’re optimistic it will all be finished on time.”
Land acquisition for civil infrastructure is a critical issue in East Java. A new highway to Surabaya’s international airport has come to a sudden halt over problems with land purchase. Suramadu is being built away from the closest point between the two islands because land couldn’t be bought.
There’s certainly a great deal more to be done at Suramadu by the 500 workers employed by six contractors. There are also about 150 Chinese technicians, and consultants from Denmark and Germany on the job.
The approach road on the Surabaya side is a narrow pot-holed track alongside a stinking canal. Once drained and rebuilt this will become the highway leading onto the four-lane bridge. So far less than 700 metres of causeway on either side is in place.
The reasons for Suramadu look logical enough. The Surabaya port of Tanjung Perak is already overloaded and has no room to expand. A new sediment-free harbour on the northwest coast of Madura could relieve pressure.
Madura is a poor and dry island where the locals have an income about one sixth of those in East Java. No wonder the ferries, which take an hour or more to cross the strait, are always full of Madurese seeing work across the water.
Suramadu will open up the 160 kilometre-long island and allow the smokestacks of Surabaya to be relocated. Good access could mean the coffee beans of Madura will rapidly find their way into the cappuccino mugs of Java’s mall habitués.
Well, that’s the theory and the economists have assembled some impressive Power Point presentations. These make it seem this will be the bridge to prosperity ever after.
Whatever the benefits or otherwise, Suramadu should become a symphony of singing steel as the wind hums through the taut cables, a thing of beauty. Which means it should be a joy forever.
THE BRIDGE OF DREAMS
Nation builders need grand dreams to inspire the masses. Twenty years ago that was articulated as Tri Nusa Bima Sakti, a phrase invoking a mythical hero and divine power in the unity of three islands.
In more pedestrian terms this meant the linking of Java to Sumatra, Bali and Madura to create one central block where Indonesians could drive ferry-free from Aceh to Ubud.
The first bridge is probably impossible because the Sunda Sea is too deep and the seabed fractured. The second is politically tricky because the Balinese aren’t keen on the idea of Javanese in their millions strolling from Banyuwangi into Gilimanuk.
So Suramadu became the bridge most likely and in 1990 planning got underway. The financial crisis seven years later followed by the political upheaval meant all plans had to be stuffed back in the filing cabinets till 2003.
Although it’s a baby project compared to some overseas (one similar bridge in China is five times longer and is said to have been built in four years), Suramadu should still stir patriotic pride.
It will be the biggest bridge in Indonesia and the first linking major islands. The Madurese, who have long suffered a bad press in East Java for their alleged hot-tempered violence, shouldn’t feel so isolated. Maybe some will return if their homeland prospers.
Of the ten million Indonesians who call themselves Madurese, more than six million live away from their island. This probably makes them the nation’s most itinerant ethnic group.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 February 2006.)