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Is Indonesia prepared for the next tsunami?

April 4, 2011

By Olivia Rondonuwu

JAKARTA: In daily games and quizzes with his children, Hardimansyah slips in these questions: Where’s your rucksack? What can you do with a candle? Where do you run to if I’m not with you when a tsunami is closing in?

Hardimansyah’s family lives on the small Mentawai islands off Indonesia’s Sumatra, which experts predict will see an earthquake sometime in the next decade followed by a tsunami just seven minutes later, even faster than the one that hit Japan in March.

“I didn’t know what a tsunami looked like until I saw it on TV. All of a sudden I felt like I was there, I almost couldn’t bear to witness it,” said Hardimansyah, in a shaky voice.

He works on the beach in the fishing industry but was away from the coast last year when a giant wave killed hundreds in the Mentawai islands.

In 2004 a tsunami as high as 30 metres swept away 160,000 lives in the Sumatran province of Aceh alone, plus more than 60,000 from Thailand to Africa.

Sumatran residents found footage of Japan’s tsunami horrendous, but also inspiring because of the composure of the Japanese people. This has led Indonesia to reassess its own preparedness.

“Japan is very prepared, and looking at Japan, I know we have a lot of homework to do,” said Wisnu Wijaya, a director at the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.

Indonesia’s government started to prepare for tsunami after 2004, but by contrast Japan started building awareness and relevant technology in the 1960s and yet still struggled to cope with the devastating impact of the wave that struck last month.

The areas at risk in the Indonesian archipelago are mostly not industrialised, in contrast to Japan.
The United Nations has told governments in Asia’s most catastrophe-prone areas that they should set aside 10% of their development funds to limit the risk of disaster, but Indonesia struggles to fund basic infrastructure normally.

The government is spending 13 trillion Indonesian rupiah (US$1.49 billion) on disaster mitigation this year, or just 1% of its 2011 budget. This was also only about 5% of what Japan spent in 2007, the disaster agency said.

Short memory

Aceh has been rebuilt after funds poured in for reconstruction from around the world, and the national economy and stock market grew strongly in early 2005.

While there is a rule to build away from the Aceh coast, protective mangroves have not been planted and some residents want to return to live on the beach.

“The Japan tsunami has become a sobering reminder for me that my biggest fear right now is if we are still not ready when tsunami comes again,” said Aceh resident Rony Muchtar. “Our
knowledge is very low on the risks and I’m not confident we have learned enough lessons from the 2004 tsunami.”

Japan’s March 11 tsunami reached eastern Indonesia as a fast-moving one metre wave, but despite hours of warning, a man in Papua was killed, apparently drowned. Days later a false alarm in Aceh led people to flee to the hills and two people died in the panic.

In terms of monitoring earthquakes and detecting the possibility of a tsunami, Indonesia has lifted the number of its seismographs to about 150, versus 50 before the 2004 tsunami, but compared to Japan’s 1,000.

In recent years, an early warning system has been wired to sirens in public places and mosques, a few tsunami-proof escape buildings have been built, and the government has designed maps
showing the areas most at risk in Sumatra.

However, other islands such as Java and Bali also run along a faultline between plates in the earth’s crust in the Pacific “Rim of Fire”, and so are also tsunami-prone but lag behind in terms of preparedness.

These areas, including the traffic-logged capital Jakarta with 10 million people, do not yet have equivalent detailed disaster maps to understand the threats nor evacuation schemes, said a spokesman for the national disaster agency.

The country also lacks the national disaster mitigation laws of Japan, and cannot match the mental preparedness of the Japanese, where the topic is part of the school curriculum and has become ingrained in the population.

Three minutes

Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, of the Indonesia Science Institutes, who has studied the crust under Mentawai since the 1990s, said a clash in the plates in the next 10 years could cause a quake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, followed by an eight-metre high tsunami.

The country’s early warning system, using German technology, can decide tsunami potential from a quake in four minutes. So for Hardimansyah on the Mentawai islands, that means he has
about three minutes to escape to the hills.

The television footage from Japan is the reason he continues to remind his three children what they should do.

“If daddy is not home when the tsunami hits, get out of the house and follow the crowd. Daddy will be waiting for you on higher ground,” the 41-year-old tells them. He has prepared bags for each of his children containing a blanket, a jacket, instant noodles, matches and a candle.

“We can’t defy nature,” he said. “What we can do is to prepare as much as we can.”

– Reuters


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