Why Indonesia is abandoning its capital city to save it

Indonesia’s capital Jakarta faces such challenges due to climate change that the plan is to build a new capital city more than 1,000 kilometres away.

Skyline shot of an area affected by floods, next to Ciliwung river in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Aerial picture of an area affected by floods, next to Ciliwung river in Jakarta, Indonesia, in January 2020 [File: Antara Foto/Nova Wahyudi/ via Reuters]

Jakarta is sinking.

Notorious for traffic gridlock and poor air quality, Indonesia’s sprawling capital faces such a perfect storm of climate and environmental challenges that the government has decided to move it somewhere safer.

Increasingly severe rainfall and flooding, rising sea levels, and land subsidence have conspired to make the Southeast Asian megacity a challenging place for its more than 10.5 million people to live.

A quarter of the city — located on the western tip of the densely populated island of Java — could be underwater by 2050.

So, the Indonesian government is bidding farewell to Jakarta and plans to relocate to a new capital: Nusantara — a purpose-built city more than 1,000km (620 miles) away in Borneo island’s East Kalimantan province.

As world leaders gather for the COP27 summit in Egypt and thrash out ways and timeframes to avert what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told them was the “collective suicide” of climate change, Jakarta’s fate vividly demonstrates how people in the developing world are already suffering from, and adapting to, a climatically-changed reality.

An Indonesian national police officer pushes a rubber boat in a flooded street to rescue residents in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Indonesian national police rescue residents from flooding that inundated Jakarta in February 2021 [Bagus Indahono/EPA]

Relocating a capital city is a daunting task although plans appear to be advanced, according to the official ibu kota negara (the nation’s capital) website.

President Joko Widodo plans to host Indonesia’s 79th independence day celebrations in Nusantara in August 2024, where core infrastructure for an initial 500,000 residents will have been completed, according to the website.

Bambang Susantono, a former Indonesian transport minister who is leading the new capital city development project, is upbeat about the gargantuan task.

Creating a new city from “scratch” was an advantage, Susantono wrote on his LinkedIn page recently, as it allowed control over the master plan, quality of engineering work, and the application of the latest technology.

“In Nusantara, we do climate change adaptation at scale,” he wrote, pointing out that 65 percent of the city will remain tropical forest.

“Given these facts, I believe Nusantara will be a prime example of how cities and countries can respond to climate change,” he wrote.

Critics are not so sure.

Goodbye, Jakarta. Welcome to Nusantara

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures as the governor of East Kalimantan stands during their visit to an area, planned to be the location of Indonesia's new capital in East Kalimantan province, Indonesia.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures with Governor of East Kalimantan Isran Noor during their visit to the planned location of Indonesia’s new capital [File: Akbar Nugroho Gumay/Antara Foto via Reuters]

Climate change did not cause Jakarta to sink — that is due to unsustainable groundwater depletion that has resulted in subsidence — but the city is being swamped by rising sea levels, which have been caused by planet-warming greenhouse gases.

Whether to move or not is “a big question for many”, said Edvin Aldrian, professor of meteorology and climatology at the Agency for Assessment and Application of Technology BPPT Indonesia.

Building a new capital might also amount to “only moving the problem”, said Aldrian, who also teaches at the University of Indonesia, Bogor Agricultural Institute and Udayana University in Bali.

Moving will not stop the increasingly extreme rainfall and flooding, which is “getting heavier and heavier” either in Jakarta or, in the future, in Nusantara, he adds.

“I’m afraid that there are many floods already in Kalimantan.”

Aldrian has warned that about 40 percent of Jakarta lies below sea level and the northern part of the city is sinking at a rate of 4.9cm (almost 2 inches) each year.

Subsidence is due mainly to the city’s use of groundwater sucked up through water wells. Although heavy rains should replenish underground aquifers and shore up Jakarta’s foundations, urban sprawl creates a concrete boundary that prevents the aquifers from being replenished, while the streets often flood.

And “while the capital’s land surface is sinking, the sea is rising,” he added.

Below, groundwater is being depleted, but three bodies of water above ground threaten the city, as he explains:

Torrential rain over the city has become more common, causing an increase in severe floods. Added to that, heavy rain in higher terrain nearby flows down into Jakarta, flooding the city’s canals and waterways. And then there is the sea, where rising waters threaten the city, particularly at high tide.

The New Year’s Eve storm of 2020 that turned Jakarta into a mucky swimming pool in just a few hours demonstrates for Aldrian the challenges posed by climate change.


Rain clouds were estimated to have formed for many kilometres above the city, whereas a normal height for cloud cover would be about 3 to 4km, he says. When the rain fell, it was like nothing he had ever seen.

Some areas saw rainfall at an intensity of 377mm (almost 15 inches) in a day, inflicting some of the worst flooding ever to hit Jakarta.

“You can’t do anything. You are isolated in your home…. Cars can’t move, electricity and communications are down, and drinkable water supplies have become contaminated by overflowing drains and sewers,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The problem is not during the flood it is afterwards”, he adds, explaining that all the costs are in cleaning up the mess.

Asia’s sinking megacities

What has occurred in Jakarta is also affecting other megacities in South and Southeast Asia, where, according to a recent study led by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, coastal cities are sinking faster than in other parts of the world.

Indonesian youths play in flood water in a Jakarta neighbourhood.
Indonesian youths play in flood water in a neighbourhood in Jakarta after overnight rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating thousands of homes and paralysing parts of the city’s transport networks [File: Achmad Ibrahim/Reuters]

Vietnam’s economic hub Ho Chi Minh City, Myanmar’s Yangon, Bangladesh’s port city of Chittagong, China’s Tianjin, and the Indian city of Ahmedabad are among the cities most steadily subsiding under the weight of their populations and the effect of urbanisation.

Like Jakarta, they too are contending with rising sea levels.

Learning from Jakarta’s challenges, Nusantara’s city planners want to create a green city that can cope with and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Widodo announced the plan to relocate the capital from flood-prone Java to a 2,560-square-kilometre (almost 990 square miles) site on the forested island of Borneo in 2019.

Work is already underway and a completion date of 2024 has been set for the first of four phases of development: the relocation of key administrative elements, including the president’s office, according to a report on the move by scholars Anuar Nugroho and Dimas Wisnu Adrianto.

The second phase is a decade-long process, from 2025-35, to develop a foundational capital city area, followed by a third phase, from 2035-45, to develop the overall infrastructure — physical and socioeconomic.

The final phase is to establish Nusantara’s reputation globally as a “World City for All”, according to Nugroho and Adrianto, and an “economic Super Hub driving the economy of the nation” with the creation of 4.8 million jobs by 2045.

Plans for the city available on the ibu kota negara (the nation’s capital) website look and sound impressive: Eco-friendly construction of all high-rise buildings; 80 percent of travel in the city will involve public transport or “active mobility”, such as walking and cycling; and all important facilities will be located within 10 minutes of a public transport hub.

Residents will also have access to recreational green space as well as social and community services within 10 minutes of their homes. Zero poverty is to be achieved by 2035, and there will also be 100 percent digital connectivity for all residents and businesses.

A computer-generated image shows a design illustration of Indonesia's future presidential palace in East Kalimantan, as part of the country's relocation of its capital from slowly sinking Jakarta to a site 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) away on jungle-clad Borneo island that will be named "Nusantara".
A computer-generated image released in 2022 showing the design illustration for Indonesia’s future presidential palace in East Kalimantan [Nyoman Nuarta/handout via AFP]

Renewable energy will provide all energy needs, and the city will achieve net zero emissions by 2045. Ten percent of the city’s area will be devoted to food production, 60 percent of the city’s waste will be recycled by 2045, and 100 percent of wastewater will be treated by the city’s water management system by 2035.

With such a list of envy-inducing initiatives, the city also aims to be among the top 10 cities on the Global Liveability Index by 2045.

Computer-generated images depict the future city as covered in trees with water features, wide pedestrian avenues, electric vehicles on carless roads, and futuristic buildings that appear to borrow a virtual world aesthetic.

Such a green city does not come cheap.

The cost of building the new capital is estimated to be more than $34bn and three international firms — United States-based engineers AECOM, global consulting firm McKinsey and Japanese architects and engineers Nikken Sekkei — have been brought in to help design its high-tech and environmentally-friendly elements, according to news reports.

Indonesia will build the new city with state funds and is seeking investors.

But the issue of who should pay for the damage created by the climate crisis – such as the inundation of megacities like Jakarta due to rising sea levels – has emerged as a key issue at COP27.

People in the most vulnerable countries in the world have done little to contribute to the change in their climates, but are suffering the effects earlier and more severely than countries whose industries and consumption patterns are responsible for the lion’s share.

“It evokes the question,” Bethany Tietjen of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University wrote last week in The Conversation.

“Why should countries that have done little to cause global warming be responsible for the damage resulting from the emissions of wealthy countries?”

Jakarta is still sinking

Critics point out that the new city is being built on an island with vast tracts of rainforest that are a crucial carbon sink and there are fears the new capital might eventually face some of the same issues as the old capital.

Building a state-of-the-art capital on Borneo also does not solve the crises faced by the millions who will remain in Jakarta.

“It’s a very ambitious plan,” said Tiza Mafira, head of Climate Policy Initiative (CPI) Indonesia.

Mafira says while she is in favour of the country’s administrative and political centre being separated from its business hub, moving away will not solve the issues facing Jakarta, which still must be tackled.

Improved spatial planning, safeguarding groundwater, and, basically, re-thinking Jakarta as a city, is the no small task that is required, Mafira said.

“In order to solve that root of the problem, you would need to rethink, re-green Jakarta,” she told Al Jazeera.

“It is possible to re-green Jakarta,” she added.

“It would take some transition. You would not only have to re-green whatever area is left to re-green, but you would also need to reassess the function of some areas,” she adds.

“Some areas would need some hard decisions. If a mall was built that wasn’t supposed to be built, then it would have to go … and be replaced with a park, for example.”

What also might need re-thinking is the decision to build in Kalimantan.

“It’s literally a forest … you would have to cut down an existing forest in order to build this capital city,” Mafira said.

There is also the real possibility that Nusantara turns out to be more of a white elephant in Borneo than a green-city alternative to Jakarta.

Mafira speaks of capital cities that end up being “a seat of administration, but nobody really wants to live there”.

Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, comes easily to mind.

“There has to be a whole cultural and social shift that will make it actually a comfortable place to live, that people would want to move to,” Mafira said.

Otherwise, “they end up moving back and forth between their home and that capital city”, she said, noting the possible effect on climate through increased air traffic as people commute between their homes in Jakarta and their jobs in the new capital.

‘We have to be hopeful’

Chisa Umemiya, research manager at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan, emphasises community involvement as the essential ingredient in the success of decision-making around climate change.

Umemiya wonders about the extent of the Indonesian government’s consultation with local communities on the project.

“My point is that from a community inclusion point of view, it’s really essential to have such a discussion,” she told Al Jazeera, drawing parallels with earlier research she conducted on forest preservation in Thailand.

On an international level too, Umemiya says, solutions to climate change need to include the input of local communities.

Particularly communities in the developing world, she says, as the climate change debate has too often and or too long been “framed around the needs or interests of developed countries”.

“Of course, reducing emissions is the solution. But who does that? To me, responsibility lies mostly in developed country and not developing country,” she said.

“I really see a gap there, to involve more views coming from the community level and especially from developing countries, and especially from Southeast Asia, where climate impact is enormous.”

Tiza Mafira, of the CPI, echoes that sentiment, noting that climate change has long affected people in the developing world — Jakarta’s problems have been evident for years —  but the crisis is just now being acknowledged because richer countries are also beginning to experience the effects.

“We’re only now starting to see a larger level of ambition because it now has begun to affect, glaringly, the industrialised and developed countries,” she said.

“I can’t remember who said it, but I’m echoing the sentiment that we’ll see accelerated ambitions at COP [the UN’s climate change Conference of the Parties] once the industrialised countries are truly suffering the consequences of the climate crisis,” she added

“And it’s unfortunate that it has to come to that, because we could have prevented this sooner.”

On Jakarta’s future and successfully mitigating the effect of climate change, Aldrian says: “Of course, we have to be hopeful.”

The academic has no plans to leave for the new capital. Instead, he will make a stand in Jakarta.

“Reclaiming the land is better than moving to Kalimantan,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera