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, April 19, 2016


A supermall of disasters      

There’s a simple way to slash the death and injury toll from the natural disasters that brutalise Indonesia’s most vulnerable:  Stop people farming in danger zones, like banks of rivers prone to flood, and the slopes of grumbling volcanoes.

However policing such bans would be almost impossible in modern democratic Indonesia, according to Medi Herlianto (right), director of preparedness in Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana BNPB – the national office for disaster management.

“Floodplains and the lower levels of volcanoes are fertile areas where people grow crops and raise stock essential to their livelihood,” he said. “They’ve been there for generations.  It’s their right.

“What we can do is encourage citizens to be aware of the risks, understand what’s going on and have the ability to escape. We don’t want everyone to rely on central government.”

Herlianto was speaking in Wellington on the sidelines of a New Zealand government aid program study tour run by the research institute GNS Science.  It’s been designed to help Indonesians prepare for the next big horror show that a fickle universe can throw up.

The BNPB was formed in 2008, four years after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami.  The policy is to develop district agencies known as BPBD (Badan Penanggulangan Bencana Daerah (district) so communities can handle smaller emergencies themselves

That includes ensuring villagers take responsibility for early warning systems.  This year 22 tsunami sensor buoys installed off the West Sumatra coast failed because they’d been plundered for parts or stolen for scrap.

A new system is being developed. “We will change the technology,” Herlianto said. “We’re still working to help people realise the importance of these devices.”

In the past natural disasters came ‘out of the blue’ as the idiom suggests, or as insurance companies still say, ‘an Act of God’.

In the scientific and rational age it is clear many catastrophes are predictable, like heavy mountain rains ripping out treeless hillsides causing landslips and flooded fields below. 

Some precautions are common sense; tertiary training isn’t necessary to know that forest trash set alight during a drought is certain to cause down-wind smoke. In other situations technology can help with automated weather-change stations.

Not every disaster sends alerts.  The 2004 tsunami that killed around 250,000 (the majority Indonesians in Aceh), was triggered by an undersea megathrust earthquake which hit without warning.

One thing could have saved lives – an understanding of natural events.  Before the waters hit coastal communities the ocean inhaled leaving exposed beaches.

Unaware this extreme low tide was the prelude to the tsunami, thousands ran onto the suddenly bare sands to collect stranded fish and marvel at the rare phenomenon.  They were the frontline victims when the tide reversed like a cavalry charge.

Disaster mitigation and management is a growing business dominated by engineers like Herlianto who studied in France.  But the industry needs multi-task experts willing to cooperate with other professionals.

When Teuku Faisal Fathani (left) enrolled at the prestigious Universitas Gadjah Mada he was asked to number the Yogyakarta campus faculties. “Eighteen,” replied the sharp young undergraduate who’d done his homework.

“Wrong,” said the lecturer.  “There are only two:  Engineering and non engineering.”

Faisal, as he’s best known, tells the story to illustrate the arrogance of closed-mind academics contemptuous of the trendy ‘soft’ courses luring students from the traditional ‘hard’ sciences.

Times change. In one of life’s many curious twists and turns, the student from Aceh is now an associate professor of geotechnical engineering at UGM.  This suggests his habitat is a factory load-testing concrete girders.

Instead he’s directing a disaster preparedness project that embraces many of the courses despised by his superior decades ago – like sociology, psychology, political science and anthropology.

“It’s fascinating and I’ve learned so much,” he said. “Engineering is measurable.  It has a beginning and end.  It deals with known materials with limits.  That can lead to thinking in terms of black and white.  That’s not how things work with tsunamis, earthquakes and other calamities.”

In the NZ capital Faisal, along with 28 public servants and academics from four Indonesian provinces, visited seaside suburbs most likely to drown should a tsunami hit.

Knowing that in the chaos and confusion of a major natural disaster people often panic, blue signs and lines have been painted on roads leading to safe zones.  It’s an example of a low cost initiative that’s been copied by Indonesia and other countries.

After the 2010 eruption of Central Java’s Mount Merapi, Faisal co-authored a self-evacuation program including maps of danger spots. Leaders were chosen and groups assigned to take care of the old and vulnerable while fleeing in orderly fashion.

“The village of Glagaharjo was wiped out, but all residents survived because they’d rehearsed an exit plan,” he said. “They knew what to do and where to go.”

Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown told the Indonesians that her city had been built on a major earthquake fault so it was important for citizens to be regularly reminded of the dangers that could suddenly strike. 

Pavement plaques remind that the central business district is now several hundred meters from the ocean.  Before a 19th century earthquake which tilted the harbor, shops and offices were on the waterfront.

“Disaster awareness must be part of the school curriculum – continuously educating generations of the dangers even when nothing has happened for years,” said Yunelimeta Asman Djannas (right) , who also studied in France.

She’s the second in charge of a 78-strong BPBD, opened in 2010 in Agam. The West Sumatra regency was an early acceptor of the need to establish local agencies.  It’s also the site of floods and landslips.

“Unfortunately not everyone is easily convinced that disasters will strike, or that if they do anything can be done,” she said. “There’s a lot of conservative thinking and resistance to new ideas. We need time to change mindsets.  It’s a slow process.

“In my religion (Islam) it’s taught that we have a duty to take care of ourselves, our families and neighbors.   That’s a priority.”

In his stay alert-be aware campaign Faisal and his colleagues have designed posters and teaching materials, including some that only use pictures.  “In isolated mountain settlements we’ve found people over 50 who can’t read Indonesian,” he said.

“Getting over fatalism is our biggest hurdle.  That’s why we need experts from other disciplines who understand the best ways to convince people that they can save their lives in an emergency.”

In another curious twist Faisal was in Japan studying for a doctorate when the tsunami struck Aceh.  Member of his family, including his parents, were seriously hurt though none perished.

Back in Indonesia he saw the psychological damage to victims of the catastrophe. “Survivors can often suffer long-term emotional problems,” he said. “They are alive, but no longer the same people.”

 Faisal has now built a tsunami-resistant home for his relatives who remain in the North Sumatra province.

By the numbers

Indonesia has 127 active volcanoes.
Thirty per cent of the population lives within 30 kilometers of a volcano.
Of all volcanic eruptions worldwide last century, Indonesia ranked among the top ten in deaths, injuries and home destruction.
The 2010 Mount Merapi eruption killed 302 and impacted more than 100,000.
In 2015 there were 1,685 disasters.
Most were caused by floods, fires, droughts and landslips.
Disasters cause knock-on economic damage to the nation through closed transport hubs, school shut-downs and business disruptions – seven times the cost of the original event.
BNPB says the capacity to respond effectively to disasters is still limited. It wants to reduce risks by 30 per cent within three years

 (First published in The Jakarta Post 10 April 2016) 

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