Playing the blame game
Early-warning buoys were either absent or broken when last Saturday’s tsunami roared through Selat Sunda, killing around 400, smashing villages and resorts.
Even if the devices had been present they’d have made no difference. An undetectable freak undersea landslip sent the high-speed wave across the narrow strait, say geologists.
Measurable earthquakes cause most tsunamis, so buoys and other gear desperately need upgrading. The tragedy has goaded the government with President Joko Widodo pledging on TV to review the budget for disaster readiness.
Welcome news for the Badan (Agency) Meteorologi, Klimatologi dan Geofisika (BMKG). Its 2018 budget was around Rp 1.7 trillion (US $116 million). It claims more than double is needed to modernize the tsunami warning system.
Still not enough. Experts urge a shake-up of all agencies along with an intensive and persistent public education campaign to help reduce deaths and destruction.
Among the first outsiders to know of a natural disaster are the young scientists working in an eerie chamber on the second floor of BMKG’s Central Jakarta HQ.
This squats on the notorious 40,000 kilometer-long circle of Pacific coastlines; this Ring of Fire is where more than 75 per cent of the world’s volcanoes spew terror, and their attendant quakes turn buildings to rubble.
At any one time at least six staff watch two giant screens cluttered with maps and quivering with ever-changing data
If all sensors across the world’s largest archipelago and neighboring seas and lands are in place and working well, an earthquake will be reported within seconds.
A signal flashes to the circling 1.3 ton Himawari 8 Japanese satellite 36,000 kilometers above the Equator, then dives down to the BMKG.
An alarm shrills. A stentorian voice speaks: ‘Attention, attention, attention. Earthquake detected. Please check your data as soon as possible.’
In less than five minutes the staff must analyze the flood of information suddenly swamping their screens.
Information engineers’ favorite saying is GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. If key data is unavailable or corrupted then decisions are also likely to be flawed.
No warnings came with the Selat Sunda tragedy, but the situation was different in Central Sulawesi. On the evening of Friday 28 September the system failed for the people of Palu. So who was at fault?
Reform needed now
When it all starts to crumple a scapegoat has to be found.
Dr Dwikorita Karnawati knows this well. After the magnitude 7.5 quake hit Palu, wagging fingers pointed at the head of BMKG for not ensuring her office had warned of the incoming five-meter high tsunami; the wave swept through the city killing 2,256, injuring double that number.The damage bill has already reached Rp 13.82 trillion (US $911 million), according to Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana (BNPB - the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.
In Indonesia’s bureaucracy handling calamities there’s an abundance of departments and ministries with confusing acronyms, most starting with the letter B; Karnawati has to negotiate with at least ten outside her own.
The UK-trained geological engineer and former Rector of Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University, was publicly pressured to resign by a Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR -House of Representatives) commission which handles public works.
She refused. “Unfortunately equipment which should have been turned on was not working,” she said. “ We had to rely on data from elsewhere which didn’t show a tsunami of any magnitude.”
After the 2004 Indian Ocean wave which killed 228,000, most in the northwest Sumatra city of Banda Aceh, sensor buoys were launched to monitor ocean movements. Their installation and maintenance was the responsibility of Badan Pengkajian dan Penerapan Teknologi, (BPPT - Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology).
During the following years there were reports of the buoys being vandalized and poorly maintained.
“They were not accessed by BMKG,” Karnawati said. “We considered tidal gauges more reliable.
“The one nearest Palu showed only a slight swell. Warning Receiver Systems (WRS) have been provided to the Local Authority Command Centers. (WRS can be computers linked to the Internet, fax machines and phone lines. All are susceptible to power failures.)
“The evacuation command can be activated only by the BNPB or its district counterparts after receiving the early warning from us.
“WRS must stay on for 24 hours every day. The ones in Palu had either been turned off or were not working. Phone and electricity lines were down so contact was impossible.
“We have no power beyond supplying information and warning. Then it’s up to others.”
The most potent alert should have been the thumping earth, telegraphing residents to head for the hills. Why didn’t more do so?
Coping with complacency
A recent Lion Air flight from Jakarta to Malang had six uniformed off-duty flight attendants seated by mid-cabin exits. Despite knowing the routines inside out, they were still publicly instructed by the crew on how to open the windows and deploy the slides.
Unnecessary? Not to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN authority which sets emergency procedure rules. No matter how experienced the passengers they still get lectured about seat belts, life rafts ‘and a whistle to attract attention’.
That’s not happening in Indonesia with natural disaster preparedness. According to the BNPB - in 2017 Indonesia had more than 2,300 floods, tornadoes and landslides.
Almost 400 people were killed or disappeared; more than a thousand were injured and 3.5 million displaced.
Bad though these were individually, they lacked the huge trauma of this year’s events that have triggered demands for better readiness.
“It’s different in Japan,” said geophysicist Tri Handayani,(left) who like many BMKG scientists has been trained in the East Asian nation.
“The realization of danger is embedded in the culture from grandparents through to little children. They all know what to do.”
Karnawati talks of 2008 as the “golden age” of awareness when citizens still remembered the Indian Ocean tsunami four years earlier.
And not just the survivors and victims’ families; politicians passed a raft of laws to create InaTEWS, the tsunami early warning system.
Then people began to forget. Budgets were trimmed and training courses given less attention. Rigid rules became rubbery.
This despite the InaTEWS guidebook stating that knowing what to do ‘depends on the preparedness both of local institutions and communities at risk … who are obliged to analyze the tsunami risk, prepare tsunami contingency and evacuation plans’.
The law orders local authorities to implement instructions. The rules even go down to the duties of hotel managers to explain escape routes to guests.
“If there’s no community engagement it’s very challenging for our warnings to turn into action,” Karnawati said. “Among the many problems is that leaders and officials constantly change; so do their policies.”Homes, shops and offices collapsed because they’d been badly built, or erected on unstable ground.
Natural hazards expert Professor Phil Cummins of the Australian National University worked on an aid program with Australian and Indonesian scientists updating the National Seismic Hazard Map. This underpins the building code.
“The problem is that the code is only applied and enforced for tall buildings (above eight floors) in Java,” he said. “It should be used for a wider class of buildings but that could really drive up construction costs.”
The geological events that caused the quake and tsunami are still being researched but some academics, including Cummins, claim the death toll was not a failure of technology, but education and planning.
Commented Associate Professor Adam Switzer, principal investigator at Singapore’s Earth Observatory: “No tsunami model could accurately provide a warning for what happened in Palu.
“The earthquake is the warning and people need to be educated to move quickly away from the coast or get to an elevated position as soon as the shaking stops.
“(Computer) tsunami models are very effective in places at a distance where the earthquake may not have been felt but a tsunami is heading in that direction. In the local sense like Palu the tsunami will be at your feet before the warning arrives.”
Karnawati said she’d technically broken the law by venturing into education. Her office has produced a limited edition of a thin brochure titled: What you should do before and after an earthquake.
Although it has some cartoons it’s also text heavy. In New Zealand schoolchildren are simply taught to DROP (to the floor) COVER (with desk or chair) and HOLD - and to know evacuation routes. Internationally the Great Shakeout earthquake drills keep the public alert.
More than 62 million participants in 62 countries have registered. The Philippines has seven million, Mexico nine million and Iran 14 million.
Indonesia, with more than 5,000 quakes a year and 26 million primary school students, has just 196 individuals involved.
The present surge in building roads and rails recalls last century’s exciting age of development. The downside is that maintenance and equipment replacement requests from dull departments slip off the list of priorities.
Karnawati estimates BMKG requires Rp 3.5 trillion (US $241 million) to get the system working efficiently. (The 2018 budget is around Rp 1.7 trillion (US $116 million).
“That’s needs, not wants;” she said. “The money wouldn’t go on staff (she already has almost 5,000 across 31 centers in the archipelago) but modern equipment and training.
“The government is now preparing an additional budget for the enhancement of the existing Tsunami Warning System; this will more than double the 2018 budget allocation.”
“The question is not that Rp 3.5 trillion will be enough, it’s how coastal communities can be better prepared,” responded Indonesian academic Dr Jonatan Lassa. He lectures in humanitarian emergencies and disaster management at Australia’s Charles Darwin University
”Technical updates are necessities; this very much depends on negotiations by the upper-stream of InaTEWS plus politicians.
“Having solid sub-systems at the downstream end (communities), and the middle stream (local governments), is not yet in the minds of policy makers.
“What’s always neglected is community preparedness. So far we have only a few episodes of ‘unfinished reform’. Policy responses for a long-term solution are also slow. I can’t see how reform is taking shape.”
Karnawati stopped short of arguing for fewer agencies and more cooperation; these are policy issues and could unleash political pique if a bureaucrat ventured too far. But she did say:
“In my correspondence with ministers I always note that in the 1945 Constitution it’s the State’s role to protect the entire Indonesian nation.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 December 2018)