The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, June 18, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

The very earth is haemorrhaging and it seems no one knows what to do.

Though the wound is invisible the location is obvious. It’s in the centre of the boiling black lake, where the bubbling seething mass is most dense, where the grey gas cloud is thickest.

There’s really only one vantage point to see the Lapindo mud eruption from a ruptured gas drill site near Gempol, East Java. This is from an overpass spanning the toll road south from Surabaya. Here hundreds gather.

Few stay for long. The stench isn’t strong, but it’s inescapable. It carries a whiff of putrescence, the odour of menace.

To the west is a shimmering swamp of moving slime that’s now spilled across the highway blocking traffic on the major artery linking the capital with Malang, the province’s second biggest city. And Blitar and the south coast.

That’s bad enough, but there are other, longer, narrower bypasses that will keep some communication lines open.

There are no similar options open to the farmers who watch in horror and dismay as their fields, their crops, their livelihoods are smothered by the unstoppable ooze poisoning their paddy.

When the villagers took the law into their own hands and pulled up barricades diverting the mud away from the road and onto their land we motorists were furious.

It cost us another hour at the wheel and maybe six more litres of fuel – Rp 30,000 (US $3.20) plus high blood pressure (150 /100). But we can still make a living.

On cooling down most drivers must have had felt compassion return. Who wouldn’t have ripped away the barriers if they’d been uninsured farmers facing ruin and little likelihood of adequate compensation? Particularly as everyone wearing safari suits was floundering in inertia.

It’s a science fiction scene; the creeping evil effluent poisoning everything it touches, with the efforts of the men in uniform puny against its awesome power. The fact that it’s moving so slowly adds to the menace and its enormous might.

Where’s it all coming from, and for how long? These are the questions the bystanders ask as they fidget on the footbridge. Obviously the bowels of the earth, but surely these are limited? Apparently not.

Perhaps there’s a real slime serpent below vomiting his (or her) fury because their subterranean lair has been pierced by an earthling’s drill rod. The Monster of Loch Lapindo. Should long rubbery tentacles emerge and start thrashing the mud with fury at least we’d understand more than we know now.

If all this black batter has come from a cauldron under our feet won’t it leave a great cavern below? And might the roof of this huge underground cave collapse – tumbling the villages, the fields, the factories, the roads and we helpless observers into the chasm?

What happens if the gas catches fire? Will there be a mighty explosion?

And how can the beast be stopped? There’s no way heavy machinery can get across the mire to the source. Presumably a high rock causeway will have to be built to reach the hole, though the latest idea is to build ponds and drill a ‘killing well’ to divert the mud. Meanwhile the mud is killing the environment and industry.

With the Mt Merapi eruption we’ve been kept informed by vulcanologists and seers. They haven’t always been right, but at least they offered some comfort with their scribbling seismographs and mumbled mantra. Such experts have been absent at Gempol so rumour rules.

This is the stuff of HG Wells and Steven Spielberg. In the movie the army would now be shelling the mud, the air force dropping bombs. But this is reality, so nothing dramatic is underway.

If ever there was a need for an overall emergency coordinator trained to grapple with big environmental disasters and the authority to muster services and take control, then this is it.

Even when the toll road was closed motorists had to find out for themselves when turned back at the pay booths by hoarse clerks. Warning signs on the feeder roads would have been an obvious first step.

We asked the police for a new route; keep going, they said. These directions were wrong. Translation: Keep going out of our district and responsibility.

When the eruption first occurred it was treated as a minor event. Primary news sources were the roadside peanut sellers retailing titbits gleaned from further up the line of crawling traffic.

Local radio stations poured out a flow of information, but this lacked the tone of authority and expertise. Talk-back callers relaying scuttlebutt are no substitute for a clear statement from the top about what’s happening, what’s to be done and how long it will take before everything gets back to normal.

Clearly they don’t know. One visiting politician said there should be coordination – and then coordinated himself back to the safe city without giving details of his insight.

Now overseas experts are being called in. A bit late in the day but better than never. Thank God the government didn’t hesitate to shout for outside help immediately after the Aceh tsunami and the Yogja quake or thousands more would have died.

(First published in The JakartaPost 17 June 2006)


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