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Nusantara or how to build a capital from scratch

Indonesia is facing a huge move. So big, that the country will have to put close to a century of history in a box to move its capital from Jakarta to a corner of the island of Borneo that after analyzing dozens of possible names -up to 80- will be called Nusantara. It is not the first time that a State changes its administrative center (Brazil, Kazakhstan, Nigeria did it before…) but, on this occasion, the project results from such ambition that it will not be completed until 2045. By then, the current headquarters of the civil power of the Indonesians will have sunk more than a meter and a half. A threat that has motivated the construction of a new capital from scratch.

Jakarta seems doomed to be swallowed up by the overexploitation of its groundwater. The date is not known, nor if it will disappear completely, but the Indonesian Government does not want to wait for the megacity -which has served as capital since the middle of the last century- to drown on the map to make a move. In 2019, President Joko Widodo put on the table his plan to build a new center for the country, 2,000 kilometers from the current headquarters, in a place much less prone to natural disasters such as the island of Borneo. The idea ran aground due to the outbreak of the covid but was reactivated in the fall of 2022. And, if the deadlines are met, Nusantara will be inaugurated in August of next year -Widodo ends his term that year- with the presidential palace and other government buildings operational.

The decline of Jakarta, with some 10 million residents in its census, triple if its entire metropolitan area on the island of Java is taken into account, began long ago. The problem comes in part from the urban design carried out by the Dutch – Indonesia was under their rule for more than three centuries – in their style, with channels designed to regulate flooding that, in practice, prevent the soil from compacting naturally. The apparent solution turned into a trap. The sediments coming from the rivers – up to 13 flow into the capital – fail to settle with these ‘obstacles’ along the way and the land, in the end, sinks. According to the latest studies, at a rate of 7.5 centimeters each year.

Zuriati, with her daughter Syifa, at the post where she works in the Jakarta port of Muara Angke, flooded by high tides.

Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Image - Zuriati, with her daughter Syifa, at the post where she works in the Jakarta port of Muara Angke, flooded by high tides.

It also doesn’t help that the city’s running water system supplies less than a million homes and that the rest have no choice but to buy jerry cans to drink, cook or wash or, alternatively, pump groundwater. . In coastal areas, such as North Jakarta, the inhabitants drill wells up to 150 meters deep. 40% of the capital is already below sea level and streets, homes and businesses suffer from chronic flooding. In 2007, for example, a wall did not resist the flood and the city regretted eighty deaths and damages valued at hundreds of millions of euros. The works carried out in recent decades (to dredge, clear slums, improve rivers, build concrete dams…) have not been enough. With that scenario, and Widodo’s passion for construction, the search for a new center for Indonesia was only a matter of time.

Among the more than 17,000 islands that make up the country, Borneo was chosen not only for its location, in the center, but also for its lower risk of natural disasters. The area is famous for the presence of orangutans, its palm oil plantations and coal reserves, and residents have not taken well to the project to establish the future Indonesian capital there because of the threat of deforestation. “The weight that Jakarta supports as a center of government, services, finance and communications is too much,” Widodo warned about the need for a new headquarters. The city even lacks space – it is the city with the most shopping centers in the world and the twelfth in number of skyscrapers – where to build and suffers from significant traffic jams and suffocating pollution.

The machinery has been working since September 2022 on the land that the future Nusantara will occupy.

Mast Irham

Image - The machinery has been working since September 2022 on the land that the future Nusantara will occupy.

Nusantara has nothing to do with Jakarta, at least not on the blueprints. The President of Indonesia wants to leave as a legacy an ‘eco’ city that works with renewable energy, cutting-edge technology, without traffic problems, designed for its neighbors to get around, above all, on foot or by bicycle. “We want to build a new industry. This is not physically moving the buildings. We want a new work ethic, a new mindset, a new green economy,” Widodo draws. Nearly 300 companies accepted the challenge and applied to carry out the master plan of the future capital that, finally, has been sketched by the local architect Sibarani Sofian with nature as inspiration.

Jakarta’s replacement is already taking shape on the island of Borneo, where it will occupy some 2,600 square kilometers under the name of Nusantara, which in old Javanese means archipelago. Dozens of denominations were considered to name the future city, such as Negaya Jaya (which translates as glorious country) or Nusa Karya (creation of the homeland). Every detail of the new capital is pampered to the millimeter, and the Indonesian Executive wants to even launch its candidacy to host the 2036 Olympic Games. And that the city will not be finalized until almost a decade later.

The work to raise Nusantara will take place in five phases and the first inhabitants will arrive in the summer of 2024.

Mast Irham

Nusantara or how to build a capital from scratch

The capital, which is already known by the initials IKN, will be developed in five phases. The first is expected to be ready in August 2024 with the opening of the official Palace of the Presidency and some government buildings, and the arrival of some 60,000 people to begin to ‘colonize’ its streets. For now, yes, there is not a single residential building standing. Officials have already expressed concern about a possible move to Nusantara and other residents of Jakarta, millions of them, are also unwilling to make a move that will not come cheap. A bad precedent for a city built from scratch whose lighting will cost around 30,000 million euros.

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