Devastating flood and bird flu in Indonesia

Updated On: Feb 09, 2007

Floods and avian flu are a bad mix, especially in Indonesia’s capital of 10 million.

Barely a week after the poultry ban deadline, 75 per cent of the city is submerged – the worst in the nation’s history since 2002 – leaving dozens dead, hundreds of thousand  homeless, and millions of USD in material damage.

Even when the waters are receding, the flood victims are plagued with unequal levels of aid and post-flood diseases such as diarrhoea, respiratory infections and skin diseases.

In defense to Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar’s earlier reference to mismanagement of water catchment areas as the cause of the floods, Jakarta governor Sutivoso – due to end his second five-year term later this year – has issued a flurry of statements saying the disaster was a "cyclical natural phenomenon" and that neighbouring regions also had to be involved in flood prevention efforts.

According to the State Minister of National Development Planning, Paskah Suzetta, the country will lose around Rp 4.1 trillion (US$450.55 million) in large part from paralysed operations of public services like turnpikes, electricity, commuter trains, and telecommunications. Elsewhere, NGO Greenomics Indonesia posted a higher figure of Rp 7.3 trillion. The economic losses have prompted President SBY to issue a review of the flood control budget for 2002-2010 at Rp16.5 trillion.

Foreign aid has started to pour in. Australian has committed A$150,000 (over Rp 1 billion) for flood victims in Jakarta to be administered through the Indonesian Red Cross. The United States embassy in Jakarta announced it would provide US$100,000 in emergency relief assistance for the city and surrounding communities. The European Commission also said it would give 600,000 euros in aid to target urgent needs such as food supplies, clean water, clothing, blankets or emergency latrines and water purification plants. The Singapore Red Cross has also offered S$50,000 to its Indonesian counterpart for rescue and evacuation efforts.

The worst has yet to end, as meteorologists warned that the rain was not over with predictions for the weather pattern to continue until at least the end of this month. Climate experts also noted that the heavy rains are the result of a combination of weather phenomena, including the El Nino effect that occurs every three to seven years with a major warming of the equatorial waters in the Pacific Ocean, subsequently affecting normal weather patterns.

While the flood is flooding the headlines, Dr David Nabarro, senior UN system influenza coordinator, was also in town to reinforce the message of a “deeply entrenched...highly pathogenic bird flu virus” in the country’s poultry population, and which at one point 160 out of 444 districts reported the virus. Dr Nabarro’s point was that as the amount of virus increases, the risk of human infection heightens as well, and will elevate the subsequent danger of the virus mutating into a form easily transmissible between humans. But he also admitted the difficulty given that Indonesia is “experiencing a lot of other problems besides the threats posed by bird flu,” with the ongoing flood problems as a case in point, and which may likely hinder the fight against the virus.

Dr Nabarro’s message comes in the context of several other security alerts. First, Britain recorded its first major outbreak over the weekend with nearly 160,000 turkeys being culled. China reported its first human case in six months in January and Egypt recorded its 11th death, amid poultry outbreaks in Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea and Japan. Just yesterday, Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari revealed that two more Indonesians have been positively diagnosed with bird flu to render the total infected at 83, and 63 dead.

Second, the US embassy has elevated the warning level by sending an email advisory to Americans in Indonesia to avoid contact with wild and stray cats – currently ubiquitous in Jakarta – following studies by Indonesian scientists showing the virus in cats near poultry markets.

Third, the recent memorandum of understanding signed yesterday between Indonesia and the US vaccine maker Baxter International Inc to produce a vaccine against the H5N1 virus has prompted a new debate that may threaten the global bird flu fight.

Indonesia has earlier decided to stop sending human bird flu virus samples to laboratories overseas in anticipation of the deal. In spite of Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari’s defense that previous samples sent to World Health Organisation were used by drug companies to develop vaccines the country could not afford, WHO assistant director-general David Heymann said the decision will threaten the 50-year global network of free virus sharing that has been a cornerstone of overall efforts to tackle diseases. 

According to Heymann, confirmation of tests on samples from suspected human cases of bird flu by one of eight WHO reference laboratories around the world is a key part of prevention to detect emergence of a possible pandemic strain of human flu. In one instance, Health Minister Supari also admitted that the WHO and other international organisations would be welcome to the samples if they signed an agreement saying they would not be used for commercial purposes. But it remains unclear if this proposal could be a solution to the stand-off.   (8 February 2007)


340,000 flee deadly floods in Indonesia's capital (Channel News Asia, 5 February 2007)

Blame game over floods (TODAY, 6 February 2007)

As water recedes, anger rises (The Jakarta Post, 6 February 2007)

Floods recede, but Jakarta told to stay on guard (Antara, 6 February 2007)

Jakarta suffers trillions of rupiah of losses from flooding (Antara, 6 February 2007)

Australia to give aid for Jakarta flood victims (Antara, 6 February 2007)

El Nino partly to blame, say weather experts (TODAY, 6 February 2007)

10-year bird flu battle looms (TODAY, 6 February 2007)

WHO concerned about Indonesian move on bird flu samples (Channel News Asia, 7 February 2007)

US warns citizens in Indonesia on bird flu threat from cats (Reuters/The Straits Times, 7 February 2007)

2 more Indonesians down with bird flu (AFP/The Straits Times, 7 February 2007)

EU to give $1.2m to help Indonesia with floods (AFP/The Straits Times, 7 February 2007)

Jakarta gets flood clean-up going as waters recede (The Straits Times, 8 February 2007)

Jakarta defends move to halt sharing of bird flu samples (AFP/The Straits Times, 8 February 2007)