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

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Disaster management – making the mess less © Duncan Graham 2008

How do two nations celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations? To play it safe stage a traditional cultural event with a lushness of finger-flicking maidens swirling batik and rolling their enticing eyes.

Thirty minutes of gamelan gonging and it’s all over for another half century.

That’s not the way it will be next month (Aug) when Indonesia and New Zealand recognise five decades of a mostly harmonious and relatively stable marriage. Instead a clutch of Kiwis will fly to Jakarta, Aceh and Yogyakarta to share skills on disaster risk management at a conference that’s expected to attract up to 200 participants and impact on nearby nations.

This isn’t a topic for fatalists who believe there’s nothing that mortals can do when the wrath of a vengeful Deity is unleashed, punishing the faithless and tormenting the transgressors with tsunami, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Those who take a more scientific view argue that many things can be done to prepare, though not always to prevent, natural disasters. Their key word is ‘mitigation’, not earthquake-proofing.

“ We’ve got some real skills here in NZ, developed over the years,” said civil engineer Dr David Hopkins, co-leader of the 21-strong Kiwi contingent.

“We have a different attitude - we work with people; we enjoy rolling up our sleeves. Let’s see if we can make a real difference here, not trying to do everything but working in specific areas of expertise because we’re a small country with limited resources.”

Decoded this means NZ can’t compete against big-donor nations like Japan and the US so has to deliver quality, not quantity.

Hopkins, a specialist in earthquake risk management, looks differently at disaster photos, like those from China’s Wenchuan earthquake in May. While most of us gape at the damage he seeks out the constructions that have survived. Then he wonders why.

In most cases the upright buildings have been robustly built using top materials and following best practices. These included steel reinforcement of concrete, cross bracing walls and no heavy loads at high levels. Critical is the use of materials that can flex not fracture, sway not crumple.

Inevitably the cost is initially higher, which is why some are built to lower standards and building inspectors are bribed to ignore non-compliance with regulations.

This isn’t rocket science; Hopkins knows that Indonesian authorities are just as well read on the building codes that have been developed in NZ, Japan, California and other unsteady locations. The problem is getting the rules implemented. To make his point he employs the image of a skyhook using a chain to hold a huge weight above the people.

“Each link is critical,” he said. “We’re very good at strengthening the strong links but not so good at looking at the weak.”

The idea of discussing disaster risk management to celebrate the 50 years of diplomatic relations came from Amris Hassan the Indonesian ambassador to NZ who lives in Wellington, one of the world’s most shaky capitals.

Three faults run north and south through the harbor and city of about 500,000 people. Wellington is also the center of government and the parliament so if disaster strikes the nation’s leaders would be among the victims. Managing the risks is treated seriously and the city has become a center of excellence in earthquake research.

An audit of public and private buildings recently found hundreds needed strengthening and the work is underway. A technique called ‘base isolation’ using rubber and lead blocks between the foundations and beams of old buildings was pioneered in NZ.

Few Kiwis can be unaware that their land is dangerous. The government has a Minister of civil defence and emergency management who will be at the conference.

As former NZ prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said: “It does us a power of good to remind ourselves that we live on two volcanic rocks where two tectonic plates meet, in a somewhat lonely stretch of windswept ocean just above the Roaring Forties. If you want drama - you've come to the right place.”

The last major earthquake in Wellington was in 1855, but there have been several recent disasters nearby. Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island was hit on 20 December 2007 causing considerable damage. NZ gets about 14,000 quakes a year; like Indonesia it’s part of the Pacific Rim of Fire.

Hopkins worked for almost a year in Turkey looking at apartment blocks. He expected fatalism but was “mind-bogglingly overwhelmed” by the positive response to ideas of mitigating the impact of natuiral disasters.

His message to public officials, builders and developers is to ask: “Do you have a defensible position?”

“This means asking if you’ve identified the hazards and potential damage,” he said. “You must have taken all reasonable steps prior to the event to reduce its impact under the four Rs of emergency management – Reduction, Readiness, Response and Recovery.

“You won’t be doing enough to be in a defensible position until you examine these issues seriously and develop a sensible action plan that balances the risks, funding constraints and community expectations.”

Geomorphologist (landforms scientist) Dr Noel Trustrum, the other co-leader of the conference, spent time in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami identifying projects where NZ know-how could be of use. He focussed on the Sumatran highlands where heavy clearing had threatened water supplies.

“We want to marry NZ expertise with Indonesian experience,” he said. “NZ is best at doing what’s absolutely necessary, not looking for Rolls Royce solutions. For example twisting reinforcing iron a different way can be significant.

“The Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (BRR) hands over to local and regional governments after April next year and there is still a lot of unspent money.

(The Indonesian government created the BRR to coordinate reconstruction after the tsunami. Dr William Sabandar, the BRR regional director for Nias, was educated in NZ.)

“We want to maintain relationships with Indonesia and together look beyond to helping in South-East Asia and the Pacific.”

(The conference opened at the Hotel Borobudur in Jakarta on 5 August.)

(First published in the Jakarta Post Tuesday 29 July 08)



Brett said...

Excellent post! There is so much we can learn from each other; we are more similar than we realize. I only hope the Kiwi attendees carry with them the respect for their Indonesian counterparts that so often seems to be missing from other countries.

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indonesianegriku said...

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