Indonesia and the great challenge of natural disasters
Indonesia has become a land of tragedy. Just after the flood tragedy in Wasior, West Papua, an earthquake-triggered tsunami hit Mentawai Islands, West Sumatra. While we were still shocked by those disasters, Mount Merapi erupted. Hundreds of people have been killed in the recent calamities. Natural disasters have become a great challenge for Indonesians.
There are two impacts of disasters: Economically and psychologically. In terms of Indonesia’s economy, natural catastrophes damage property and stop economic activity, which consequently result in significant financial loss for the people. Furthermore, the series of natural disasters create more burden on the national budget to finance post-disaster rehabilitation. On a macro scale, the increase of natural disasters in this country directly multiplies the number of people living in poverty.
It is not only financially frightening; natural disasters are also psychologically horrifying. The shock due to natural calamities can create a very real terror. Earthquakes, for example, are terrifying because they are unpredictable, involving a large scale of area and associating with possibly another adversity: the tsunami. An earthquake is a tragedy, which implants uncertainty in the people’s minds. A study predicting the unfinished movement of the tectonic plate along the Ring of Fire adds to the horror.
There are two kinds of reactions that we frequently observe from the authority when disasters occur. If the cause of the disaster is a mixture between human factors and natural phenomena, the authority will blame the natural factor and deny its incompetency to minimize the human factor. With regards to the flood in Wasior, the government rejected the idea that deforestation had caused the flood, but rather blamed high rain-level intensity. It is understandable since if deforestation was the cause, the government would be criticized for its incompetency in preventing the cause of deforestation, such as illegal logging.
The recent flood saga in Jakarta is another example. Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo is never willing to admit that his administration’s failures to provide and improve the drainage system contribute to the constant floods in Jakarta. Rain is always to be condemned. Denying responsibility has become a main exit strategy for the authority to escape from criticisms.
When natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions, occur, the government frequently shows a kind of desperate reaction: That there is nothing that can be done to stop the disasters. This may not be totally wrong; however, there may be a lack of preparation in dealing with those natural crises.
What happened in Mentawai has shown us a real example of a lack of disaster management. The tsunami warning was canceled because there was no report of a potential tsunami in Mentawai Islands. In fact, the problem was that tsunami early detection warning systems were not established in Mentawai, one of the most vulnerable islands to tsunami. Consequently, hundreds of people were killed by the high waves that swept villages. We need to question the government’s commitment to provide disaster evacuation procedures and infrastructure. The long observation of Mount Merapi volcanic activity also has not resulted in a minimum number of casualties. There has to be a comprehensive evaluation on disaster management in this country.
As a nation, we have to raise more societal awareness of the fact we are living in a disaster-prone country. We are not only blessed by a natural resource rich land, but also a geologically unstable area and a number of volcanoes. Consequently, natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions may occur at any time. This condition is worsening since we are unable to protect our environment that may initiate human-induced disasters.
Therefore, the only choice we have is to prepare ourselves for the worst scenario and raise community awareness about the disasters. The state has to provide a reliable and appropriate disaster evacuation system and infrastructure. The government also needs to start listening to experts that have advised on potential disasters we face. It is sad to see the published studies that say the Mentawai plate may still move have not been followed by appropriate actions to build an early warning system in the island.
We have to seriously prepare this nation for the great threats of natural disasters. We are hoping that the government does not easily deny its responsibilities when disasters occur. Taking responsibility is absolutely not an easy thing; hence, denial is much easier to do. Denial is a self-defense mechanism, said Sigmund Freud. When unwanted things happen, denial is sometimes comfortable to commit, even though that will not solve the problem.
I believe that improving societal awareness on disaster management is not an easy task. Therefore, every component of this nation has to take shared but different responsibilities. The state has to be more serious in order to serve its citizens, which must be reflected by the government manners and actions. We citizens also have to contribute positively. Sadly some people commit cowardly acts such as destroying and stealing the tsunami early detection machine. If we do not take fundamental actions and responsibility, dealing with natural disasters will be more complicated in the future and we will be unable to prevent a huge loss of life.
The writer is an ecologist at the University of Bengkulu and an Australian Leadership Awards fellow.