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

Friday, May 27, 2011


Like a Hollywood horror movie the monster from the depths was released on an ordinary Monday afternoon five years ago.

It was almost the end of May 2006 and I was driving home to Surabaya, the capital of East Java and Indonesia’s second largest city.

The previous couple of days had been spent in Malang, a 90-minute drive south, visiting relatives. A typical weekend. But this time there were problems.

Entering the toll road near Sidoarjo, about 30 kilometres short of our destination the normally free-flowing traffic was snarled. It hadn’t been raining – this was the dry season – but the road was awash with muddy water.

So were the paddy alongside – and the water was moving fast, swamping the young rice. Mechanical diggers and men with hoes were trying to clean a clogged ditch. About 200 metres away a white cloud was billowing from the mud, hiding a giant rig that had been working there for weeks. The rotten-egg stench of hydrogen sulphide answered the question every motorist was asking.

There’d been a gas and liquid blowout.

During the next few days Indonesians were assured the problem would soon be solved, though there was much confusion about the cause.

As the days rolled into months and the mud and gas continued to gush, weird plans to shut the flow were suggested, including dropping giant concrete balls into the well mouth. Then large sums were offered to religious leaders and paranormals to pray for a cessation, which they did with great ceremony and certainty.

Nothing worked.

Now jump to the present. What’s come to be known as the Lapindo mud volcano (after the company running the project, PT Lapindo Brantas) continues to spew out an estimated 30,000 cubic metres of hot mud a day. It’s reported to be the biggest disaster of its kind in the world.

Two years ago Australian expert Dr Mark Tingay from Perth’s Curtin University of Technology claimed the belching could last for 30 years, and that the area was slowly sinking. His estimate of the damage was then US$4.9 billion.

Huge levees built to contain the slime are frequently ruptured and have to be raised even higher. Enterprising locals have put ladders up the banks so tourists can pay to get a better view of the boiling mud.

At least 40,000 people have been displaced, losing their homes, farms, businesses, factories, schools and places of worship. Thirteen have died. The damage to the economy mounts daily; Surabaya is an industrial hub and the road and rail links to Malang are the main traffic arteries for East Java’s 38 million people

A bridge on the toll road was demolished when it started to sink, and a new by-pass is slowly being built. In the meantime motorists pay motorcyclists to guide them through jalan tikus (rat roads) the maze of narrow potholed lanes that connect nearby villages and so avoid highway traffic jams.

The 80 kilometre journey between Malang and Surabaya can now take five hours or more.

But the real victims are the villagers who can see only a few terracotta tops to mark their once thriving communities. This time last year hundreds protested at the alleged lack of adequate compensation, though the government and company says it has paid out millions.

About 8,000 householders have been getting $US 1,500 monthly payments from the company from a $US 400 million fund, but these have been stop-start. Just ahead of the fifth anniversary of the blowout East Java Governor Soekarwo (one name only) said that PT Lapindo Brantas still owed victims about $US53 million.

The Australian company Santos, which held an 18 per cent stake in the project, set aside almost $AUD 80 million for liabilities, and in 2008 offloaded its stake for $AUD 24 million.

There’s been no independent open audit of who is paying what, though the government seems to be footing the bill for repairs and infrastructure to contain the mud.
The government’s imposed deadline for full settlement is the end of 2012

Compare these figures with the $US 40 billion that oil company BP set aside to deal with last year’s oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico

More demonstrations are likely as victims claim they still haven’t been given full value of their homes and land. Even in areas not yet flooded residents have fled their homes and shops creating gouged streetscapes looking more like a war zone, the stench of gas adding to the image.

Indonesia’s cumbersome and corrupt land tenure system, which doesn’t provide clear freehold title, is also to blame for slow payouts as residents struggle to prove ownership.

However the government in Jakarta failing to declare a national state of emergency has aggravated the disaster. The Republic’s lack of tough and enforceable environmental laws is also a handicap.

More responsible administrations would have rapidly sealed off the zone, relocated residents and then taken over the investigation and repair work. An independent judicial inquiry should have been held. Instead there have been piecemeal solutions and much blame shifting.

The company claimed the cause was subterranean fractures cause by a shallow 6.3 earthquake two days earlier at Yogyakarta that killed more than 6,000. However the drill site is 280 kilometres distant.

Last year a team of geologists led by Britain’s Durham University reported that faulty drilling practices were responsible for the blowout, and that the quake was a coincidence. They said the bore was not properly cased to withstand the pressures known to occur in that area.

The drillers have rejected these findings. Supreme Court action to determine fault was dismissed and a police investigation ended for “lack of evidence”. The government’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology declared the eruption a natural disaster.

Although Indonesia now purports to be a democracy no political party has seriously tried to make the event a national scandal. Some NGOs have tried, though with little success. The victims are too poor, too disorganised and too far from Jakarta.

At the time of the blowout most of PT Lapindo Brantos was part of the Bakrie Group owned by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, one of the most powerful businessmen and politicians in the Archipelago. He’s head of Golkar, the majority party in Parliament supporting the minority Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Then, but not now, he was also Minister for Coordinating Welfare.

Attempts were made to sell PT Lapindo Barantos to an offshore company for $US 2 but this was blocked by the government’s Capital Market Supervisory Agency.

This month (May) Sidoarjo’s Mudflow Mitigation Agency announced that dykes built to retain the flows are now in danger of collapsing because the ground is slumping under the weight of the mud. Distressing news, but not surprising.

The solution? Water is being pumped into the nearby Porong River but the mud mounts up. More catchment areas are needed for the sediments, but no one wants arsenic-laced silt on their land.

Should the eruption continue as forecast by 2040 many square kilometres of rich farming land will have been lost and scores more villages abandoned in one of the world’s most densely populated regions. Thousands more will have lost their livelihoods.

Indonesians, long used to government failures to take firm steps in natural or man-made disasters, have an acronym for the phenomenon – nato. No action, talk only.

(First published in On-Line Opinion 26 May 2011)


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