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, November 01, 2015


Natural disasters: Are we prepared?   

The warm up included boisterous singing of Indonesia Raya led by an unstoppable  cheerleader, a loop of videos showing rescue workers in Hi-Viz vests scrambling through rubble – and one unusual addition.
The MC told the 1,000 delegates that should an earthquake or other awful event strike the Solo hotel ballroom, we should get outside to the evacuation area.
Such warnings are standard at public gatherings in New Zealand, though rare in Indonesia.  The instructions in the equally quake-prone South Pacific nation, learned like the national anthem by all school kids, are ‘drop, cover and hold’.  This means getting under something solid when the masonry hails down.
However in the Solo venue there were no sturdy tables – just plush chairs packed as tight as a cattle-class flight.  For this was to be a grand event graced by President Joko Widodo and tickets were hot.
To the great disappointment of the crowd he didn’t front, leaving the big speech to Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo.  He spent time praising NZ’s determination to share knowledge with its giant near neighbor.
Locally known as the Shaky Isles, miniscule NZ has one resident to every 60 Indonesians.  Its economy is based on exporting milk and meat, and importing tourists.
So not much in common with a massive Asian republic except this: Both countries have front-row seats at the intermittent thunder and flame show called The Pacific Ring of Fire.  Three-quarters of the world’s volcanoes roar and rumble here; the grinding tectonic plates show how eggshell fragile we humans are when Atlas shrugs.
In 2006 the nearby city of Yogyakarta was hit by a magnitude 6.4 quake that killed 5,700.  In 2011 a magnitude 6.3 quake killed 185 in the NZ South Island city of Christchurch.
In both cases the damage was caused by previously unknown faults, underpinning the need for more research to map danger areas and alert citizens to the risks.
"This isn't Russia"
“The difficulty is keeping people aware and prepared for natural disasters,” Dody Ruswandi (right) told The Jakarta Post at the sidelines of the three-day Disaster Risk Reduction – Resilience for Life Conference in mid October.  “We’re all alert after an eruption, landslip or earthquake, but concerns tend to relax when nothing more happens.
“Overall we are getting better at understanding that natural disasters can happen anywhere and anytime, that climate change is creating new problems, and that we are living in a high-risk country.
“We may not have much equipment, but we do have an agreement to call on the Army for help.  In some overseas countries the military doesn’t want to accept a civilian role. I’m not interested in building an empire – this is not Russia.
“I congratulate the media for helping raise awareness – almost every newspaper and TV bulletin features a crisis somewhere in the world.  Although we still have far to go we are improving.  We’re no longer managing disasters – we’re now managing risks.”
Ruswandi is secretary general of Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana [BNPB – the National Disaster Management Authority] set up in 2008 in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Yogya quake. It’s directly responsible to the President.
The quakes have shaken up Indonesian administration, literally and metaphorically.  Apart from BNPB there’s also a Consortium for Disaster Education which trains front line responders and publishes safety messages.
Dr Dwikorita Karnawati, the Rector of Yogya’s Gadjah Mada University [UGM] and a British-trained engineering geologist with expertise in landslips, agreed with Ruswandi’s upbeat assessment. 
“We are now treating these things seriously,” she said.  “However the budgets for coping after the event also need to be used for training when there’s no disaster.
“Awareness is one thing; willingness to allocate funds is another.”
UGM has a deal with NZ’s Geological and Nuclear Science agency now known as GNS Science, to share technology, research and training.  The NZ invention of base isolators, where the pillars of major buildings sit on rubber blocks allowing the construction to shake but not collapse, is available in Indonesia, though apparently not yet used.
Further proof of attitude change was in an exhibition where more than 100 government and non-government agencies and commercial companies showcased their products. 
Hard hats and big boots, hazard-protection gear in colors so shrill they could even be seen through the haze of Riau peat fires, crackling walkie-talkies, loud hailers and tools to dig out survivors.  There’ll still be a need for citizens to claw away shattered bricks seeking trapped neighbors when walls tumble; but after the professionals move in they need the world’s best equipment.
Four-wheel drive vehicles with satellite dishes and gen sets, drones to map the disaster zone and pin-point problems, first-aid kits and when these are too late, body bags.

Disasters are now big business.
Pick of the bunch was a low-cost early warning device developed by a UGM team headed by Japan-trained civil engineer Dr Faisal Fathani (below, left with Rector Dwikorita).  They’ve patented a solar-powered system which collects rainfall and measure tremors.
If the downpours are heavy and likely to cause flooding, or the ground shakes at an alarming rate, the device triggers a siren to alert residents and flashes data to emergency headquarters.  The system is now being manufactured in bulk and distributed across the provinces.  It has also been exported to China.

 “Emergencies can happen very quickly, so early warnings are critical,” said Fathani. “There were problems with people stealing tsunami alerts dropped in the ocean by the government, so we’ve given local communities the responsibility of caring for the terrestrial systems.
“Vandalism is unlikely because villagers own the system – they realize their lives depend on knowing of dangers in advance.”
Also back to basics was the Yakkum Emergency Unit, a NGO based on the slopes of Yogya’s temperamental Mount Merapi.  Their contribution was a simple kit collecting rain to grow hydroponic vegetables and using the waste to raise fish.
Survivors of the initial shock can die later for want of food and drink.  But with a few shards of rescued plastic, wood, aluminium and ingenuity life can go on.

The thin blue line
New Zealanders can’t stand visual pollution.  That means most outdoor advertising is banned and essential signs, such as traffic controls have to be approved. 
The forests of banners and billboards that shield motorists from the stunning scenery of Indonesia are absent in NZ; tourists can feast on the environment rather than be urged to buy smokes.
NZ Ambassador Dr Trevor Matheson
So when it was proposed that big notices should be erected around the Wellington seaside suburb of Island Bay warning that this was a tsunami danger area many of the 7,000 residents objected.
“Yet signage was essential,” said GNS Science’s Michele Daly.  “We had meetings where someone came up with the idea of painting blue lines on the roads.  These mark the likely high-water mark in case of a tsunami when you’d need to get on the right side.
“Some feared this might reduce home values, but that hasn’t happened. People seem to appreciate that this is a community that cares.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 November 2015)

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