Learning From Lapindo: Five Years On, What Now?
Fidelis E Satriastanti
I was excited when my editor finally sent me out to cover the controversial Lusi, short for Lumpur Sidoarjo (Sidoarjo mudflow), for its five-year commemoration. I shy away from using the term anniversary because it seems inappropriate for a disaster that has affected the lives of at least 11,000 people and changed the face of this country forever.
I was invited to the first ever symposium on the mudflow, which was interesting because it was attended by both local and international scientists who are experts in their fields.
Before the symposium, all participants — scientists and journalists — went to see the site of the eruption. Some of the scientists have been engaged in the mudflow from the very beginning. I, on the other hand, was a newcomer to the site. Nonetheless, we had the same reaction.
It took an hour or so to reach the site from the airport. When our bus arrived, I noticed a sign, “Entrance to the Mudflow,” which looked like something you would find at a tourism spot.
I didn’t know what to expect but, from the entrance, I might have said that it was neat. Sandbags covered by river rocks were piled up very orderly to support the road, which had enough room for one bus.
As most journalists would, we raced each other to get a good look at the scene behind the 13 meter high wall separating the mud from the train tracks and roads. It turned out that was not the site we were supposed to visit. No, we were at least 15 minutes away by bus from Lusi.
Looking out the bus window, I couldn’t help but imagine what was there five years ago, before all of this gray mud swallowed up everything. But a colleague interrupted my wandering thoughts and pointed out some places in the middle of the mud that used to be an overpass for the highway, which has since collapsed.
After we finally got to Lusi, we hurried to the source of all that mud. Ignoring calls that there would be a chance later to see the main site, the photographers, without hesitation, trudged through the mud to come within at least 300 meters from the mud volcano. But it was not only the photographers. The scientists, too, looked as if they had returned home to see their baby.
I was kind of picturing a more dramatic scene, with mud gushing aggressively and filling up the landscape like in one of those Hollywood disaster movies. It was not quite that dramatic, but from 300 meters away we could see smoke appear every 20 seconds, sometimes thick, sometimes not. Occasionally, we could see mud gushing up like a spring. Every time it erupted, sulfur filled our nostrils.
To ensure our safety, we were accompanied by officials carrying detectors for poisonous gases. If one of those detectors went off, we needed to run. The officials were kept busy handling journalists and scientists, making sure that the mud we stepped in was safe and solid. One of my colleagues slipped knee-deep into a crack in the mud, but other than that, we were safe.
When I asked the scientists about the mudflow, Richard Davies, a geologist who has been studying the mudflow since it began erupting, put it in simple terms: “I am amazed at how Lusi has become a permanent landscape of your country.”
It struck me. That’s exactly what I felt when I got to the site, that it is supposed to be there, that it is a part of the environment now and that this was just normal.
But there is nothing “normal” about Lusi. Scientific debate continues to rage about whether it was caused by a distant earthquake or by drilling activities linked to a company belonging to the family of a prominent politician. And stories continue to come out about how some victims are still yet to receive compensation.
So, after five years, what’s next? The scientists at the symposium had an unwritten agreement with Humanitas Sidoarjo Fund, the Australian-based nongovernmental organization that organized the event, that there would be no talk about the cause of the mudflow. Thank God. I’m not a scientist but in my opinion, there is no right or wrong in this case and there will always be pros and cons.
The symposium ended without the summaries, pledges or legally binding commitments you might see from intergovernmental summits. These scientists were merely there to present their research. Many had not even met before but all of them were busy mingling and getting into very serious discussions.
Despite the ongoing compensation issues and uncertainty over the cause, the scientists were able to sit together and accept differences of opinion. You might say that this has been the only positive development over the past five years.
Lusi may become a story we tell our grandchildren one day as we grow accustomed to its presence. Nevertheless, the government is still responsible for protecting its citizens. So, what has this country learned from the mudflow?