The Plan to Build a New Capital

The Plan to Build a New Capital  at george magazine

Jakarta is sinking, and Indonesia’s president has chosen to move the capital. The Times accompanied him on a tour.

“Jakarta has a lot of problems,” says my colleague Hannah Beech, The Times’s senior correspondent for Asia, “but its most existential one is that it is sinking in some places by up to a foot a year.”

Climate change is part of the reason: The Java Sea — which surrounds Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital — is rising. But an even bigger factor is that Jakartans, desperate for access to clean water, have dug thousands of illegal wells that effectively deflate the marshes underneath the city. Today, 40 percent of Jakarta lies below sea level, and flooding is increasingly common.

The encroaching sea presents a threat to one of the world’s most densely packed cities, where 10 million people live in an area about half the size of New York City, and another 20 million reside in the surrounding region. To deal with that threat, Indonesia’s popular president — Joko Widodo, in his ninth year in office — has devised an audacious solution: He is moving the country’s capital.

The new capital, now under construction, is called Nusantara. It is being built from the ground up, about 800 miles from the current capital. Joko promises that the city will be a model of environmental stewardship, carbon neutral within a few decades.

Unlike Jakarta, which is in Java, the region that has long dominated the country’s politics and economy, Nusantara is in Borneo, where residents have felt overlooked. “Indonesia is more than Jakarta,” Joko told Hannah on a recent tour of Nusantara. “Indonesia is more than Java. So we must make the capital in a place that is far away.”

By Leanne Abraham

But it remains unclear whether his grand plans will succeed. Joko wants the new capital to open next year, before his second — and, by law, final — term as president ends. Not all his potential successors support the plan. And it seems to be behind schedule: No residential towers have been built, and the lead architect is worried that the rapid construction schedule could compromise safety.

“People want Nusantara to succeed because it means that the developing world — despite all the problems that were placed in its path by the legacy of imperialism, by the legacy of colonialism — that a country can succeed on its own terms and can be a successful democracy and can create its own vision for itself,” Hannah said. “But it’s a very, very challenging thing to do.”

Read her story and see the photographs and videos that accompany it.

A new product: Today, we launched an iOS app for audio journalism and storytelling where you can find Hannah’s story and many more. Times news subscribers can download our new Audio app.

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