Disaster Management Reality Check

Indonesia is a disaster-prone place. Given the present lack of adequate preparation in many areas of natural disaster management, there has to be a comprehensive evaluation on disaster management in the country.

In Indonesia, twenty volcanoes are now on alert status across the country. In my Indonesian classes, one professor shared his experience of the eruption of Mt. Agung in 1963. I am reminded about how recent natural disasters are forcing Indonesians to take a hard look at what it means to live in the Pacific “Ring of Fire”.

Since its first eruption on October 17, the Mt. Merapi eruptions have killed 242, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency and forced almost 400,000 people to take refuge at 639 sheltering points neighboring regencies.[1] People are fearful about their safety. It is normal to discuss the disasters have fallen, one after the other, beginning with the earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, the worst hit among several areas in different countries in December 2004.

However, Indonesians do not always blame the central government for lack of proper disaster preparation. During an English class at Udayana University in Denpasar, when asked if disaster-related deaths were preventable responses ranged from “The earth is no longer good” and “It is a sign of the apocalypse.” When asked if the students remembered ever practicing an evacuation drill, they responded no. It seems that few people question the government’s responsibility to provide disaster evacuation procedures and infrastructure.

The media has reinforced the idea that Indonesia’s situation on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” is to blame for the magnitude of the disasters.  The “natural factor” behind natural disasters is often used by Indonesian politicians to excuse any lack of disaster management and deny the incompetency of the government. But the magnitudes of the earthquakes that occur in Indonesia are similar to those that occur in Japan and New Zealand. Neighboring countries such as Singapore have found ways to deal with climate-related disasters through natural resource management and urban planning.

There are two factors which make natural disasters worse.  First, Indonesia is highly populated, so people are more likely to be affected.  Java is the most densely populated place in the world. While it is the size of England, it holds a population close to that of mainland United States.

Second, and more importantly, Indonesia suffers from failures in disaster management. Poor emergency preparation increases the number of victims than would otherwise have suffered in the presence of better prevention. Despite the installation of tsunami earl detection warning systems following the tsunami of 2004, the tsunami warning was canceled because the responsible officials did not have the capacity to maintain the early warning system that was built following the 2004 tsunami.[2] It is unfathomable that there would be no established early warning system in one of the islands that is most vulnerable to tsunamis. Consequently, over 400 people were killed by the high waves that submerged villages.

Some disasters are also human-induced and, as such, can be mitigated. Activists blame the flash floods in West Papua’s Wasior area in October, which claimed 111 lives, on the massive deforestation the converted land into mines and plantations. Despite being illegal, logging in West Papua’s natural forests has occurred at an alarming rate.[3] The government has denied allegations that deforestation caused the floods, blaming it instead on rain-level intensity.

Post-disaster, the government’s lack of disaster management capacity has exacerbated the situation for disaster survivors. NGO groups blamed the government for its sluggish relief efforts for Mentawai tsunami victims. “We don’t see the weather as an excuse for slow aid distribution. The main reasons are weak coordination and the lack of alternatives for operations in the field during extreme weather,” Koalisi Lumbung Derma charity coalition coordinator Khalid Saifullah told reporters on November 1.[4]

President Susilo Bambang Yudhono wants to avoid another high death count repeat in West Sumatra; a new government plans proposes the permanent removal residents from tsunami-prone areas. However, the government plan would be difficult given the customary systems that exist in Mentawai and elsewhere in the country.[5]

In the Mt. Merapi volcano camps, capacity is at ten times larger than expected. With the number of evacuees reaching 283,000 on November 8, many places, along with drinking water, public bathing, washing and toilet facilities, food, and health care are needed. Some of the several thousand who are packed into Yogyakarta’s Maguwharjo Stadium to facilitate distribution efforts are suffering from depression and complain about the lack of privacy.[6]

Indonesians should hold their leaders to more accountability. They should not settle for excuses that scapegoat the weather or fate. There must be an evaluation of the present disaster management systems and improvements must be made so that hundreds of people do not die every time there is a natural disaster.

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