Stanley Widianto and David Crawshaw, Jakarta – Indonesia is draining the swamp. A steamy, jungle-clad island best known for orangutans, pygmy elephants and oil fields is to become the site of the country's new capital city, in an ambitious plan to ease pressure on smog-choked Jakarta.
President Joko Widodo announced Monday that officials had chosen an area in East Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo, for the as-yet-unnamed new capital. Construction on the 450,000-acre site would start next year and people would begin moving in from 2024.
While Indonesians for decades have discussed relocating the capital, the need has become more pressing in recent years.
Rapid growth has pushed the Jakarta metropolitan region's population to some 30 million, creating a conurbation that is highly congested and polluted. Jakarta sits at the western end of Java, the world's most populous island that is home to more than half of Indonesia's 260 million people.
But perhaps the biggest problem: Jakarta is sinking. Two-fifths of the city lies below sea level and some areas are subsiding by as much as 10 inches a year – a phenomenon caused by digging of underground aquifers and exacerbated by climate change.
Widodo cited Jakarta's problems in announcing the move to the new location, some 800 miles across the sea, near the existing cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. But he acknowledged that Jakarta would remain Indonesia's business and trade center.
The new site encompasses a swath of forest known as the Bukit Soeharto conservation area that is home to numerous species but is also plagued by illegal logging. The country's planning minister said Monday that some of the land would be set aside to rehabilitate the park and protected forests.
Moving the capital won't be easy – or cheap. Other nations – including Brazil, Myanmar, Kazakhstan and Bolivia – have done it, with varying degrees of success. Indonesia's move would cost about $33 billion, Widodo said, with the state funding about one-fifth and the rest to come from public-private partnerships and private investment.
Relocating from Jakarta "isn't as easy as flipping your hand," said Arya Fernandes, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. "The city will still be the anchor of Indonesia's national politics."
The project could be seen as Widodo's attempt to burnish his legacy as an infrastructure-minded leader, something that has become his calling card since taking office in 2014, Fernandes said.
Critics of the plan have warned that the cost of moving the capital could be untenable. They have also pointed to previous, failed plans to move the capital elsewhere in Indonesia.
What's more, shifting civil servants and their families to a new city in Borneo won't stop Jakarta from sinking, they say.
The government "can stop with underground water extraction, for starters, or have alternative sources besides groundwater," said Heri Andreas, a researcher at the Bandung Institute of Technology who has studied Jakarta's subsidence challenges. "That would be cheaper than moving the capital."
– Crawshaw contributed from Hong Kong.