“Jakarta has many problems,” says my colleague Hannah Beech, The Times’ senior Asia correspondent, “but its most existential is that it drops in some places by up to a foot per 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 drain the marshes beneath the city. Today, 40 percent of Jakarta is below sea level, and flooding is increasingly common.

The encroaching sea poses 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 live in the surrounding region. To deal with that threat, Indonesia’s popular president — Joko Widodo, in his ninth year in office — has come up with a bold solution: He’s moving the nation’s capital.

The new capital, which is 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 protection, carbon neutral within a few decades.

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

But it is still unclear whether his grand plans will succeed. Joko wants the new capital to open next year, before the end of his second – and by law last – term as president. Not all of his potential successors support the plan. And it appears to be behind schedule: No residential towers have been built, and the lead architect is concerned 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 put in its way by the legacy of imperialism, by the legacy of colonialism – that a country can succeed on its own terms and can become a successful democracy and can create its own vision for herself,” Hannah said. “But it’s a very, very challenging thing to do.”

Read her story and see photographs and videos accompanying it.

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

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