Still lessons to learn

In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Sulawesi, Richard Cockett argues that the Indonesian authorities must devote more funds to dealing with such disasters

The sprawling archipelago of Indonesia is notoriously prone to natural disasters. Sitting astride the ‘Ring of Fire’, a 25,000-mile arc of lethally unstable volcanic belts and tectonic plate movements, the country has experienced some of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in recorded history. Most famously, the blowing of Krakatau and Mount Tambora, both in the 19th century, disrupted weather patterns and ruined harvests across the world for years.

Earthquakes are also common. Of the 200 earthquakes of magnitude six or more that have occurred in the world since the start of 2017, a full 19 were in Indonesia.In August earthquakes and aftershocks struck North and East Lombok, an island that is, amongst other things, a renowned tourist destination. About 500 people were killed. Bali, just to the west, was also affected.

Disastrously, another bigger earthquake struck on 28 September near the island of Sulawesi, north-east of the capital Jakarta on Java. The 7.5 magnitude quake triggered an enormously powerful tsunami, affecting mainly Sulawesi and the surrounding area,with waves upto six metres high and speeds of about 800 kilometres per hour. Towns relatively near the centre of the earthquake, such as Donggala, were severely damaged by the tsunami, but it was a town a little farther to the south, Palu, that was almost eviscerated by the wall of water.

Perhaps the force of the tsunami as it overwhelmed Palu can be accounted for by geography. The town sits at the end of a narrow bay, and the sides of the bay must have funnelled the water south, building momentum and power all the way. Whatever the truth, the consequences were devastating. Most of the waterfront was reduced to rubble and thousands of homes were destroyed. Many houses and other buildings just sank into the ground as the quake turned the soil liquid, a process called ground liquefaction. Malls and hotels collapsed. In all, throughout Sulawesi, probably at least 2,000people were killed. More are missing, although there are no official figures on this as yet.In total, over 65,000 homes were damaged or wiped out, and more than 333,000 people made homeless.

Palu was relatively poor, making it more vulnerable

A tsunami on this scale is likely to gravely damage even the best defended towns and villages. But Palu was relatively poor, making it more vulnerable. Houses would have been less robustly built, local roads a bit more rutted and difficult to negotiate. Nonetheless, the question for the Indonesian authorities must be whether Sulawesi, and Palu in particular, was as well-prepared for this awful event as it might have been, and whether the response was as fast and effective as it should have been. Furthermore, have the authorities learned all that they should have done from previous calamities?

On Boxing Day in 2004, one of the largest quakes ever, measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale, struck off the coast of Sumatra, flattening large parts of the island and causing another massive tsunami. It killed almost 230,000 people across several countries in the region, including Indonesia, and prompted the Indonesian government to invest heavily in tsunami early warning systems and in improved response architecture. A special new agency called BNPB (the National Agency for Disaster Countermeasures in English) was set up by the then government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to provide a better emergency-relief service, with the involvement of the armed forces and other agencies.

So, when faced with another tsunami at Sulawesi, how did this all stand up to a real test?

Patchily, as it turned out. The main complaint is that the early-warning system was wholly inadequate. An extensive network of buoys had been deployed to detect tsunamis, but it appears that those nearest to Sulawesi were not working all the time, as the authoritiesdid not have enough money to maintain them. There was an alert issued immediately after the earthquake, but this seems to have been turned off after just half-an-hour.

The massive tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, which struck off the coast of Sumatra
The massive tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, which struck off the coast of Sumatra

More importantly, the earthquake toppled many of the masts of the mobile phone network, thus preventing the tsunami text-alert system from working at it should have. Those who did know what was about to hit Palu were reduced to shouting warnings through the streets. It is no excuse, but the time that elapsed between the earthquake and the tsunami was so short anyway that, even if the system had been working perfectly,it is doubtful whether many more people would have had the chance to escape.

The response after the tsunami, though, was reasonable enough, according to some international aid agencies, used to coping with such large-scale emergencies, and certainly compared to other regional responses to similar disasters, such as the Super Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippine city of Tacloban in November 2013. The army got out onto the streets of Palu in pretty good time to stop more looting and a breakdown of law and order, even though most of the prisoners had escaped from the local prison. Survivors had initially been grabbing items from shops, but the government had apparently decreed that they were allowed to take essential provisions, with the shops beingcompensated later. Palu’s airport was damaged and this hindered commercial airlines in their attempts to get people out. Thousands thronged the airport waiting for flights, some of them growing increasingly angry and frustrated.

It will take years to rebuild Palu, but the lessons from its destruction will have to be absorbed rather quicker, given the frequency of Indonesia’s quakes and tsunamis. The exact circumstances surrounding the malfunctioning buoys are being investigated, but plainly the system has to be fully funded if it is to be effective. In developing countries, this will always be a problem.

The early-warning system was wholly inadequate

One very practical improvement that has been suggested in the aftermath of this tsunami is that in future the government should set up several logistics bases for disaster relief around the country. In this way, aid can reach people faster wherever a tsunami or tremor strikes across the country’s vast network of islands. Generally, experts reckon that victims have the best chance of survival in the immediate 24 hours after a quake or tsunami, so speed is of the essence, especially in terms of medical treatment.

One Indonesian official, Mr Atmadji Sumarkidjo, has already outlined where such bases could go, in areas that are less prone to seismic events.The bases would hold emergency kit such as water filters, power generators and even excavators to search for victims under the rubble. The government has commissioned a study of how these bases would work in practice, and the results will be submitted to President Joko Widodo.

If anything is certain in life, it is that Indonesia will suffer more such natural disasters in coming years. With global warming, their severity and frequency might even be increasing. After the latest crop of earthquakes on Lombok and Sulawesi, it is evident that for all the country’s progress in disaster prevention and relief, more could still be done. There are many claims on the public purse, of course, but much will rest now on how far the government is prepared to fully fund a prevention system that, on paper at least, could give the citizens of the next Palu a better chance of survival.


Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist

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