Indonesia’s week of disasters

Updated On: Jul 21, 2006

A week of woes for Indonesia saw it suffering its second tsunami in two years - the latest in a line of disasters to hit the sprawling, developing nation recently, and the unwanted record of becoming the country worst hit by the bird flu.

Sprawled along part of what is called the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, a belt of intense volcanic and seismic activity, Indonesia is no stranger to natural disasters.  Since the massive Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, few months have gone by without landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or floods that have taken lives and disrupted livelihood.  Reuters reported that many Indonesians feel these disasters are a warning from God.  In a country where many believe divine powers take a view on rulers, President Suslilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who took office shortly before the 2004 tsunami, gets his share of the blame and the disasters are believed to be a reminder to him to lead the nation better.

A 7.7-magnitude undersea earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit the coast along southern Java on Monday.  The toll from the disaster has climbed to 550, while the search continues for about 275 people still missing.  Government officials said as many as 54,000 people were displaced from wrecked fishing villages, farms and beach resorts, adding to the rehabilitation headache for authorities after an earthquake that killed more than 5,700 people in central Java less than two months earlier.  Aid is trickling in for the thousands who lost their homes and more than 4,000 people who, fearing further tsunamis, have fled to refugee camps in the hills above the coast. Constant movement between two tectonic plates triggered Monday's tsunami and 2004's disaster, and is expected to send more earthquakes - and possibly tsunamis - Indonesia's way.

The Indonesian media has questioned the lack of warning ahead of Monday’s (17 July) killer waves despite regional efforts to set up early alert systems after the 2004 tsunami, blaming Indonesia’s disaster agency for having done “nothing of note to increase people’s preparedness for disasters”.  Responding to criticisms that Indonesian officials had withheld alerts from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre and Japan's Meteorological Agency after the earthquake, they defended the move as inconsequential given the absence of an automated warning system, and the short time between their receipt of the alert and the time the tsunami struck.

Indonesia’s lack of a warning system during the devastating 2004 tsunami prompted the drafting of plans for a country-wide early warning system, but these were not due to be in place until 2009.  Sensor buoys deployed last year off Sumatra as part of a five-year project to install detectors all around the world's largest archipelago had been damaged and were no longer operational.  Edi Prihantoro, an official at Indonesia's Ministry of Research and Technology that oversees the project, said a lack of funds to buy and maintain the buoys was delaying the implementation of the system, arguing that other countries should also pay for its upkeep.  Prihantoro said the German and Chinese governments had so far donated funds for the system but that it would be expensive to set up across Indonesia.  Amidst a wane in international aid and funding, he said so far there had been no clear pledges to fund the other buoys.

Additionally. a tsunami warning system had not been set up for the southern coast of Java.  Some officials considered the area less likely to be hit by a tsunami than others in Indonesia, but following Monday’s tsunami, Surono, a senior official of the country's earthquake agency admitted their prediction was wrong and they now believe there are no tsunami-free areas along the southern coast of Java. 

The latest aftershock in Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged region and a new tremor of a magnitude of 6.2 that struck the Sunda Strait and also caused tremors in Jakarta on 19 July saw Indonesian officials reacting more quickly, sounding radio alerts minutes after Wednesday’s quake struck, while local security officials headed for the coast to warn residents of a possible tsunami.

Disaster of a different kind reached a new level as Indonesia’s bird flu toll rose to 42 last week, bringing the country closer to becoming the world’s hardest hit by the virus.  With more suspected samples being tested at WHO-approved laboratories, the number is likely to increase.  Director-General for communicable diseases and environmental health, I Nyoman Kandun, said, "We still expect more human casualties as long as avian influenza continues circulating among poultry across the nation."  He added that the deadly disease was endemic in 27 of the 32 provinces across the archipelago.  The death toll in Indonesia, a massive archipelago that is home to 220 million people, is increasing faster than any other country in the world - all of the deaths there have occurred in the last 12 months.

Unlike Vietnam, which has not recorded any new human deaths this year, in part a result of an aggressive campaign to slaughter all birds in infected areas, Indonesia has been criticised by some for doing too little to stamp out the H5N1 virus.  The government has so far shied away from mass poultry culling, citing lack of funds and the impracticality of the move in a country with millions of backyard fowl.  Vaccination is the preferred method to prevent the spread of bird flu among poultry.

Kandun also said that Indonesia's bird flu public awareness campaign was still not effective enough as, “we have 230 million people spread across 17,000 islands and some of them just don't care,” citing poor education levels as another contributing factor.

“I also call on help from the international community. Unless we want to see Indonesia become the centre of a global bird flu pandemic, they should go all out in supporting us,” he said. The government has said it needs about US$980 million to finance its bird flu programs from 2006 to 2008. This money is needed to provide compensation for culled chickens, purchase vaccines and perform research, as well as preparing for a possible global flu pandemic that experts fear could be triggered by a mutated form of the virus that is easily transmitted between humans.  A senior official with WHO Indonesia, Dr. Steven Bjorge, expressed his hope that cooperation between health and agriculture ministries would be sped up to combat bird flu.


RI warns of more bird flu deaths as toll nears world's highest (AP, 16 July 2006)

Grim mark for RI with 42nd bird flu death (The Jakarta Post, 17 July 2006)

Indonesia's bird flu toll nears record (The Straits Times/AP/Reuters, 17 July 2006)

Java tsunami toll hits 550 (Reuters, 19 July 2006)

No warning for Indonesia's latest tsunami victims (ANTARA, 18 July 2006)

Indonesia failed to sound tsunami warning (The Straits Times/Reuters/AP, 19 July 2006)

No tsunami risk after latest quake off Indonesia: warning centre (Today/AFP, 19 July 2006)

Act of God? Warning? Indonesians mull new disaster (Reuters, 18 July 2006)

2 tsunamis in 2 years. What's happening? (The Straits Times, 19 July 2006)