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

Wednesday, June 27, 2012



A passion for slips and spouts                                     

It was a Saturday dawn no one living in Yogyakarta on 27 May 2006 will ever forget.  Six years ago at six minutes to six people in the Central Java city were waking.  Among them was Dwikorita Karnawati who knew what was happening when her house started to shudder.

A 6.2 magnitude earthquake centered 25 kilometers south had thumped nearby Bantul Regency with colossal force. The damage was obviously widespread and it was clear there’d be many casualties as badly built houses crashed.  (Almost 6,000 died and more than 36,000 were injured.)

Once the first shock had passed panic followed. Many thought the quake was linked to the eruption of nearby Mount Merapi.  It wasn’t, but the terrified fled south.

Flooding and great jets of water, some up to four meters high were being reported. Signs of a tsunami?  Unlikely because Yogyakarta is more than 100 meters above sea level and far from the ocean.  But people weren’t stopping to reason - they rushed north, colliding with those heading in the other direction

In her shaken but little damaged home, Dwikorita heard listeners to a radio program reporting water spouts and realised what was happening.  Not a tsunami but liquefaction, where the quivering earth squeezes wet ground, forcing water to the surface.

“I called the radio station and explained the situation,” she said.  “Even my Rector at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) and other colleagues rang me seeking information.

“Scientists have a duty to talk publicly about natural events. I tried to calm people down - no tsunami, no need to flee.

“It was a lesson I learned when I was studying for a PhD at Leeds University (in Britain) where my lecturer used the media to warn about landslides in the area and help people prepare.

“It’s different in Indonesia.  I once had to visit a distant village devastated by landslips, accessible part way by motorbike, and the rest on foot.  The people didn’t speak Indonesian and many were superstitious about the cause of the disaster.

“I had to use pictures and comics to explain the situation.  Since then we’ve developed simple, attractive and accessible materials, including a calendar showing the seasons and conditions when landslips are most likely.

“Risks can be estimated by hazard mapping and reduced so damage is lessened.  We can help improve society’s resilience.”

The ability to relate to everyone from remote villagers to the center of power (she once briefed President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her Cabinet on a devastating debris flood in Sumatra) has been a valuable extra skill for the UGM professor of geology.

If she’d been thin-skinned Dwikorita would have never made it as a scientist.  She was one of only two girls studying geology in a class of sixty – and her friend has since moved to another discipline.

“The boys joked about me a lot at first but later became protective,” Dwikorita said.  “Things have improved since, though could be better.  Around ten per cent of enrolments are female.

“A third of my staff were women when I was head of the Geological Engineering Department between 2003 and 2011. (She stepped down to concentrate on research.)

“I was attracted to geology when I was a Scout and we went exploring rivers and mountains. I wanted to know more about the natural world. My father was an agricultural scientist, but I followed the example of my grandmother who was an outdoor woman adventurer.

“In my career I’ve had little discrimination.  The problem isn’t gender but age.  (She’s 48.)  Only a few men are jealous when women take the lead.

“At home I want to be clean, but when I’m in the field I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.”  Commented her colleague Iman Satyarno:  “She’s a tomboy.”

Along with three other UGM academics, Professors Iman and Dwikorita have accompanied two teams of lecturers and government officials from Padang (West Sumatra) and Palu (Central Sulawesi) on a training course in New Zealand.

After graduating Dwikorita did further research in Japan, Sweden and the UK.  In 1997 she won the World Bank’s Young Academic Award.  Other prizes have followed and she now has a formidable publishing record of books and papers in scholarly journals.

Earlier this year she was a Fulbright Visiting Professor in Geological Sciences at San Diego State University, and guest lecturer at the University of California.

Somehow the disaster reduction expert has also found time to marry and produce two children.  Her husband, Professor Sigit Priyanto, is a civil engineer who inadvertently taught Dwikorita about the difficulties of changing people’s mindsets.

The family’s house is less than 20 kilometers from Mount Merapi and 100 meters from a river flowing from the volcano.  When it started to erupt Dwikorita wanted to leave – but her husband didn’t.  (They evacuated.)

“We almost had a fight over it,” she said.  “He didn’t want to move because he had an emotional attachment to our home.  It taught me how difficult it is to change the minds of even well educated people.

“Out of that I’ve developed a new approach to research.  We have to include issues like culture, sociology and religion.

“There are earthquake codes for buildings, though often badly administered.  However there are no laws relating to land use hazards.  This is very sensitive – restrictions can lead to land prices going down, but people have the right to know the risks they face and be prepared.

“In NZ homeowners insure their houses, but not Indonesia where people look to the government for compensation.  They struggle for life, not insurance.   There have to be controls in place because some insurance companies have gone bankrupt.

“We need to persuade the government, not directly but through the media.”

Would she recommend geology to girls?

“If that’s your interest, do it,” Dwikorita said.  “You need to be fit. Geologists find it easier to accept women than other sciences - just as long as you work with passion.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 June 2012)

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