Indonesia: The Year of Disasters

In Asia, Earthquakes & Tsunamis, News Headlines, Volcanoes

Straddling the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia lays claim to 150 active volcanoes — more than any other country. But that distinction also means the country is particularly prone to a range of natural disasters running the gamut from volcanic eruptions to earthquakes, tsunamis and flash floods.

At no other point was this vulnerability more apparent than in October, when a string of disasters struck across the country, underscoring the authorities’ lack of disaster preparedness and coordination of relief efforts.

On Oct. 4, flash floods and landslides in the West Papua town of Wasior killed at least 150 people, with hundreds more missing, and rendered thousands homeless.

Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan was quick to blame massive deforestation in the surrounding upstream areas for the disaster. Environmental groups agreed, saying the degradation had loosened the topsoil and affected the ground’s ability to absorb excess rainfall. However, Zulkifli was contradicted days later by the coordinating minister for people’s welfare, Agung Laksono, who said the disaster was caused by unusually heavy rainfall.

In any case, the response by rescue officials was slow, hampered by the remoteness of the town and the fact that international nongovernmental groups had long been barred from entering West Papua and Papua over security concerns.

The International Community of the Red Cross, among those barred from entering the region, complained that the government was sending much of the aid to Wasior, despite the fact that nearly all of the survivors had by then evacuated to camps in neighboring areas.

Even as the authorities dealt with that disaster in the country’s far east, another struck the westernmost island of Sumatra just weeks later.

On Oct. 25, a 7.7-magnitude earthquake hit the Mentawai Islands off West Sumatra, triggering a tsunami that claimed more than 500 lives.

The government had issued a tsunami warning shortly after the quake, only to lift it minutes later. Only after communication was restored with the affected islands the following morning did the government learn of the tsunami that had devastated the area.

The failure of the much-hyped billion-dollar tsunami early warning system drew sharp criticism. The system was established after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Relief efforts were hampered by rough seas and the remoteness of the villages affected. Access to the islands was through a 10-hour boat ride from Padang on the Sumatra mainland, or through a grueling 70-hour sea trek from Jakarta.

Some of the affected fishing communities only received aid two weeks after the catastrophe hit, while supplies and volunteers had to wait it out at the relief coordination center in Sikakap on North Pagai Island, the worst-hit in the chain.

Throughout the relief effort, it was unclear who was in charge of distributing the aid. The official death toll was compiled from mere estimates, as some of those previously presumed dead were found alive days later.

The tsunami that hit Mentawai highlighted the vulnerability of coastal communities to natural disasters and tested Indonesia’s emergency response system. It was a full week after the killer waves struck that the Indonesian Red Cross finally realized it would be easier to coordinate relief efforts from Muko Muko in Bengkulu province instead of Padang in West Sumatra.

However, the West Sumatra Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) refused to move its operations to the neighboring province despite it being closer to the affected area. The agency argued that Mentawai was an administrative region within West Sumatra and not Bengkulu.

Critics also challenged the definition of a “national disaster,” which is declared if a disaster affects more than one province.

By declaring an emergency a national disaster, all relief efforts are coordinated by the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), which acts more independently and has direct access and control over provincial administrations, other public institutions and the military.

Conversely, with local disasters, relief efforts are carried out independently by institutions and NGOs, whose work more often than not overlaps. The BPBD and the provincial administration’s operational command center only has an advisory or supervisory role.

Preparedness of the People

Less than 24 hours after the tsunami, Mount Merapi in Central Java began spewing hot ash and deadly superheated gas clouds. The eruptions peaked on Nov. 5. At least 320 people were killed and tens of thousands had to be evacuated to shelters outside the 20-kilometer exclusion zone.

What was once lush vegetation and farmland was blanketed in a thick layer of volcanic ash. The ash reportedly rained down as far away as West Java, and for days the city of Yogyakarta, just south of the volcano, was pitch black from the dust and all flights there were canceled.

Merapi’s marathon eruptions this year were the biggest in more than a century, but the death toll was far lower than in a 1930 eruption that killed thousands.

This was due partly to the efforts of a community of volunteers called the Merapi Circle Information Network (Jalin Merapi) that continuously updated information about the disaster on the micro-blogging site Twitter.

The group compiled the data from an observation post four kilometers from the mountain’s smoldering peak.

It started tweeting on Oct. 25, a day before the first eruption, sharing links from various sources and re-tweeting the information coming in from others about the imminent eruption.

But it was their updates on the pyroclastic flows and ash plumes, evacuation procedures and evacuees, aid, the number of injured and dead and search-and-rescue activities that saved thousands and contributed to an orderly evacuation and relief effort. It also prevented outbreaks of disease and other health problems.

As Merapi continued to belch deadly clouds of superheated gas, the debate arose over the Javanese spiritual approach to the Mountain of Fire, which is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

For centuries the Yogyakarta sultanate had assigned a spiritual gatekeeper to quell its frequent rumblings. The most recent gatekeeper, Mbah Maridjan, was killed at his home the day Merapi began erupting.

His refusal to evacuate invoked praise for the strength of his convictions, as well as criticism for the superstitions centered on the mountain.

Maridjan’s refusal to budge was also blamed for the high number of residents who refused to evacuate and were subsequently killed in the disaster, despite the government having issued a warning about the increased volcanic activity.

Post-Disaster Management

Despite staying at government-run shelters during the nights, many villagers went back to their homes in daylight hours to tend to their crops and livestock and make sure their homes were not looted. Several people were killed during these trips.

This raised the issue of post-disaster reparations — compensating the victims for the homes, crops, livestock and livelihoods destroyed, as well as providing loans to help people start their lives anew.

A small but effective community-based program from Flores Island in East Nusa Tenggara could provide the example needed in the aftermath of disasters like the Merapi eruptions.

Faced with the ever-present threat of floods and landslides each year, the people of Tanali village in Flores’s Ende district have set up a cooperative to serve as a savings and loan institution for times of natural disasters and other emergencies.

Despite the remoteness of the village, the people there are virtually self-sufficient should a disaster strike. Residents have also chipped in to establish a center to deal with post-disaster hazards such as disease and famine.

Disaster preparedness often seems like an afterthought in Indonesia. After Padang was hit by a massive earthquake that killed thousands last year, the government began mapping out evacuation routes and training residents to be ready for disasters.

The preparedness was tested when the earthquake triggering the October tsunami in the Mentawais hit. Hundreds of thousands of residents evacuated Padang in a matter of hours in anticipation that the tsunami would also affect the bustling city.

The government is now reconstructing Mentawai, establishing disaster centers as far from shore as possible and mapping out evacuation routes in remote villages prone to disasters.

The sad likelihood, however, is that it will probably take more natural catastrophes devastating Indonesia to prompt authorities to establish similar disaster centers elsewhere.

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