Friday, December 2, 2011

The Human Costs of Corruption: The Collapse of the Kartanegara Bridge

Photo from here

Even today the government seems incapable of providing an infrastructure to support the population, too distracted as it is with maintaining an outmoded feudalism whose intention is to protect dynastic wealth and privilege at the expense of social progress.  Yohannes Sulaiman and Philip Turnbull, Jakarta Globe 12/1/11

Saya kira ini akhir hidup saya.  Yaya, a victim of the Kartanegara bridge collapse, Kompas 11/28/11

At approximately 4.15 pm on Saturday, November 26 a primary cable supporting the Kartanegara suspension bridge in Tenggarong, East Kalimantan snapped (1).  As a result of this catastrophic material failure the bridge collapsed, dumping the road along with all its traffic into the Mahakam River 40 meters below.  By Tuesday, November 29 the death toll had reached 18 and another 22 people were still missing.  The search for bodies has been hindered by the depth of the river and the speed of the current.

Picture from here
Construction of the 710 meter Kartanegara bridge began in 1995 and was competed in 2001 at a cost of 150 billion rupiah (US$17.7 million).  It was modeled after the Golden Gate Bridge and was celebrated as a technological advance when it was opened.  The bridge was designed to last for at least 25 years, and so its premature collapse last Saturday has raised questions about corruption, incompetence, and negligence in the construction industry as well as government agencies responsible for oversight and maintenance of public infrastructure.  However, instead of addressing the questions, the companies involved in the construction and maintenance of the bridge, as well as officials in both the Tenggarong district and national public works agencies, have been quick to point the finger of blame at one another.  Understandably they are none too eager to assume any responsibility for this tremendous cockup that has shaken the public's trust in the construction industry and the so-called public servants tasked with the responsibility of overseeing them.  The national police have already sent investigators to the scene, and the deputy chairman of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) (2) has openly stated that "dishonesty" in procurement and construction led to the collapse.

Rampant Corruption

Photo from USA Today
The collapse of the Kartanegara bridge is a visible symbol of many of the problems associated with construction projects in Indonesia.  While it is too early to draw certain conclusions, there are suggestions that materials used in the bridge's construction were substandard.  In addition it has been reported that an independent inspection of the bridge in 2006 revealed structural problems, including the fact that one of the support pillars had sunk 50 centimeters in 5 years.  Moreover it was found that some of the anchor blocks for another of the bridge's pillars had shifted by 18 inches.  The firm responsible for the inspection recommended 23 billion rupiah (US$2.7 million) in repairs, but only 1.6 billion rupiah (US$118,235) were budgeted.  Between 2008 and 2010 no money was budgeted for repair and maintenance of structure.  Experts say that the key to the safety of suspension bridges is regular maintenance, but in this case as well as many others across the country, the government has failed to provide adequate resources for infrastructural upkeep. 

The company that built the bridge, Hutama Karya, insists that it is only responsible for problems that arise within the first half year of the bridge's opening.  When told about the shifting pillars and blocks, the director of this LARGE ENGINEERING COMPANY responsible for MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR PROJECTS said he wasn't aware of the movement.  He further stated that "as far as we know, it doesn't matter if it's shifting.  As long as the bridge is still working, then it's fine....Besides, no one ever complained about the shifting".  In other words, the construction company guarantees its work for no more than six months and maintains that significant shifts in structures like bridges are nothing to worry about.

Graphic from Indonesia Media
In a country perpetually ranked among the most corrupt in the world the construction industry stands out as one of the most egregious offenders.  Indonesians refer to public service positions dealing with development projects as "wet places" (tempat basah), meaning that there are ample opportunities for graft (places where the bribes aren't as lucrative are "dry places", or tempat kering).  Part of this stems from the amount of money spent on infrastructure projects (for example, Indonesia's 2011-2025 development plan calls for nearly half-a-trillion dollars in investment), but it is also due to the close relationship between developers and politicians.  Project budgets are generally inflated as politicians receive kickbacks for awarding contracts to favored companies, often run by cronies or even family members.  Procurement of materials and equipment provide opportunities for bribery, and lack of oversight enables construction companies to skimp on materials.  For example, a favorite tactic in road construction is to increase the amount of filler (like sand) used in concrete and asphalt mixtures.  This lowers the cost so the contractor can pocket the difference, but it also drastically decreases the quality of the road.  Anyone that has traveled in Indonesia is familiar with the results; roads pockmarked with holes that are in some cases impassible in the rainy season.

Maintenance of roads, bridges, and infrastructure are neglected because upkeep doesn't offer the same opportunities for graft as does construction.  In addition, politicians love new infrastructure.  Campaigns are built around promises of new facilities, and politicians point to the number of new roads and bridges built under their watch as proof of their performance.  Infrastructure is a visible symbol of "economic development", and this connection is backed up to a large degree by orthodox economic thinking, which holds that countries need to invest in infrastructure to develop.  Thus roads are not only good politics, but they make economic sense as well.

What Does This Have to Do With Geography?

Roads are the backbone of transportation and distribution networks, which are a key interest of geographers.  In addition, economic geographers are concerned with the level of infrastructure in a given country as this provides clues as to economic potential.  In contrast to economists, though, geographers are more concerned with the processes behind infrastructure development (selection of locations, routes, and specific projects) as well as the effects of new development (anything ranging from how the project changes patterns of movement and flows of goods to conflicts arising from the construction project).  Roads are inherently political in that they tend to be advocated by certain groups for certain ends.  The choice of location often involves prioritizing one group or interest over others, and by studying these processes geographers can understand informal structures of power as well as "politics of identification".    

Despite large "investments" in infrastructure, Indonesia's freight-transport network is ranked among Asia's worst. (Jakarta Globe 12/1).  This makes international and domestic shipping more expensive, which raises the costs of everything from raw materials to finished consumer goods.  This obviously affect the economic progress of the nation.  The question is, how can this problem be addressed.  Corruption in construction is part of doing business here, and it can be seen at every level of government.  For example, in an impressive study of 608 village road projects "missing expenditures" were found to account for an average of 24% of project costs.  "Missing expenditures" refers to money skimmed from wages, materials, and other accounting irregularities.  One of the more interesting findings of the study was that the guarantee of a government audit (3) only reduced the average "missing expenditures" by 8 percentage points, which suggests that the government's auditing agency is not very effective in detecting corruption.  Thus it seems the whole system is broken, from the tendering process to implementation on through to monitoring and auditing.

Never Forget....

It's uncertain what the impact of the catastrophe will be.  Plans are already being drawn to construct a new bridge at a cost of US$33 million.  Cynical Indonesian commenters are convinced  that it will be business as usual, but as an outside observer I hope that the terrible loss of life causes Indonesia's political leadership to re-examine the way infrastructure is developed here (4).  There's more than enough blame to go around as this episode represents a complete failure of governance.  The victims of the tragedy and their families deserve a complete inquiry into the case, but no amount of investigation or reform will compensate them for their loss.  Hopefully they will not be forgotten.  The bupati of Kutai Kartanegara, for her part, has proposed a unique way of remembering the victims: she says that debris from the bridge will be left as a memorial to the tragedy that occurred there.  Evidently the cleanup industry isn't as "wet" as the construction industry.


(1)  More recent reports suggest that it was the failure of a clamp, rather than a cable, that led to the collapse of the structure.  

(2)  The KPK is not able to investigate the construction of the bridge because it predates the agency's mandate.

(3)  The goal of the study was to gauge the effectiveness of several methods of reducing corruption.  In a number of the cases project organizers were told with certainty that an audit would be conducted on completion of the project.  According to the author of the study, the baseline audit rate is about 4% of all projects, so this assurance raised the certainty to 100%.  Audits were in fact carried out in each of these cases, but the study revealed that even when there were missing expenditures, the auditors had a hard time finding conclusive evidence that would enable them to prosecute the culprits.  The study is available online and can be found in the references below.  

(4)  To see some of these comments click on the story links below and read the reader comments.  They are quite revealing.  

References and For Further Reading

Olken, Benjamin A.  2007.  Monitoring Corruption: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia  Journal of Political Economy 115:2, pp200-249.  


  1. I think that if government cannot have responsibility of public transportation, they should not built like this bridge. Government have to have responsibility to develop country, but also they have to save their citizens providing safety. This bridge might be seeing spot, but they should spend money for safety of this bridge. It's terrible things that they neglected maintenance.

  2. I probably have seen this brige on the Internet video. This accident was unprofitable, so people in not only Indnesia but also have to think seriously about geographical conditions.

  3. Could the government hire "inhouse" engineers and construction workers instead of subcontracting out the projects? Like a "department of transportation".
    +Not losing 24% of nearly every project budget to “missing expenditures”
    +Better control over quality of materials used
    +Better control over quality of craftsmanship
    +The result of the 3 above is less money being spent on maintenance farther down the road.
    +The result of the above 4 is better quality infrastructure, at a reduced cost!
    + (Hopefully helps) Eliminates corrupt political influence
    + No blame game when/if something does go wrong, like the bridge collapse

  4. Corruption in construction becomes visible when there is a catastrophic failure and lives are lost. Most governments view preventative maintenance as inefficient, mostly due to the fact that societies judge visible results rather than structural integrity. Politicians assume that more votes will be cast in their favor if they erect more buildings and create more revenue, rather than considering the long-term consequences of doing so.

    Although a workforce comprised of salaried construction workers seems like it would eliminate grafting and corruption, creating one would prove expensive and inefficient. Expensive because it will require regular wages at a competitive level to eliminate the possibility of bribery. Also, no government can fabricate the materials necessary for these projects thus leaving that aspect of construction vulnerable to exploitation. Also, construction is a finite activity. The workload available to such workers is variable and inconsistent.

    Perhaps a solution would be requisite auditing with stiff monetary consequences, regularly scheduled inspections, and a payment system that doesn't pay the company entirely until construction is complete and to standards. Most companies only change when it is understood that their profit from industry is contingent upon fulfillment of their contract.

    Jess Walters

  5. I don't find this surprising at all. Who ever did the job of building the bridge sure wasn't thinking about the safety of the people but more about profiting off the how much they could have saved from probably buy or using cheaper material.

  6. Reading this article reminded me of my homeland, the Philippines. I have heard similar issues and controversies, and I can say that the quality of structures such as public roads and buildings are indeed indicators of corruption. The government allots huge chunks of money for infrastructure projects but only a small fraction of the budget is actually spent. From the higher officials down to the common construction workers, the money gets sifted until there is not enough to purchase quality building materials. This results to poor quality structures that last only half of their supposed working life span. And, when these structures start to collapse and become nonfunctional, they become news headlines but in the end, the same thing happens again. It's just another opportunity for the thieves to practice their profession. It is depressing to see these kinds of news but it is the reality. The only way for Indonesia and the Philippines to keep up with other developing countries is to cure their disease, which is corruption.