Seven Years on From Earthquake, Indonesian Island Maps Its Future
Gunung Sitoli, North Sumatra. The island of Nias off Sumatra’s west coast has undergone a major transformation since it was hit by an 8.7-magnitude earthquake seven years ago on Wednesday.
There are now new roads circumnavigating the island — 308 kilometers’ worth according to Asian Development Bank data — erasing past transportation difficulties. Cars and motorcycles, once considered a rare sight here, are now so plentiful that accident statistics have begun to spike.
Nias’ biggest city, Gunung Sitoli, is expanding sporadically and at a dizzying pace. Aid money that poured in after the disaster has greatly developed the remote island, attracting migrants and returning indigenous people who once traveled to other areas.
Houses and shops are sprawling along the newly built roads apparently without adequate city planning, zoning guidelines or attention to aesthetics.
I traversed Gunung Sitoli’s trash-littered beaches and lines of rickety wooden houses run down by years of rain and seawater before reaching a wall of garbage that had been compacted to serve as one community’s physical foundation. But what really made me anxious about the island’s future lied just a few hundred meters down the road, a state-of-the-art hospital the island now boasts.
With its postmodern architecture, the facility, built from the good hearts and deep wallets of foreign donor countries, is far more luxurious than the majority of its counterparts in metropolitan Jakarta.
But with the island’s combined annual budget of just Rp 1.4 trillion ($153 million) for a population of 850,000, the hospital has become a blessing and a curse. Now, a heated debate has ensued over who will foot its massive operations bill once the donors leave. And leave they shall.
“Most people I talked to didn’t want to wait for another major disaster,” said Masta Siahaan, head of the reconstruction and rehabilitation division at Nias district’s Regional Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD).
The island, located 100 kilometers from mainland Sumatra, is so remote and neglected that it was only after the quake — the world’s second-most powerful since 1965 — that it received real attention, Masta said. The catastrophe took more than 1,300 lives and displaced thousands more.
International aid earmarked for the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was redirected to Nias, helping residents not only rebuild but also to improve their lives. As part of its “cash for work” program , t he Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Recovery Agency (BRR) handed out construction jobs to the affected locals, although the program has recently slowed in recent years.
The earthquake also came at a time when the island was preparing itself for existence as a separate province. What was once a forsaken part of North Sumatra has in the last decade been divided into four districts and one municipality, allowing the island of just 5,625 square kilometers and nearly one million people to meet the basic eligibility requirements for provincehood.
With new districts, however, come the need for new government offices, new police headquarters, new court buildings and new civil servants. That requires money, and governments are struggling to cope.
Half of Nias district’s annual budge of Rp 422 billion has been allocated for salaries for new public employees and construction. That means the BPBD, tasked with responding to the flash floods, landslides, fires, tidal waves and other natural calamities that often strike the place, would have to survive on an unfeasible shoestring budget of just Rp 1 billion per year.
For example, Masta said, there was a need for earthquake-resistant houses. But the design proposed by the central government uses steel, which the island doesn’t produce.
“If we want it we have to bring it in by boat from Sumatra,” she said. “And we can’t afford to pay the transportation cost alone.”
The threat of earthquake is very real. Nias sits on an active tectonic plate notorious for releasing sudden bursts of energy and triggering some of the world’s largest earthquakes and tsunamis.
Nias is no Aceh, with its rich oil and gas reserves and mineral deposits. It also lacks timber that could be used for traditional housing solutions, as its once-dense forests have been cleared for rubber and cocoa plantations.
And those face difficulties of their own. The treacherous waters and long travel time between Nias and Sumatra’s Sibolga port makes transportation expensive, on top of soaring costs. That means the only way the island can move its rubber and cocoa is to sell it cheap, ridiculously cheap.
For decades the island has been plagued by officials who are “Niased,” a derogatory term used for public servants who are sent to remote outposts for running into trouble or upsetting the wrong people.
Corruption is so rampant that the island has seen two district heads arrested for graft. Former Nias district chief Binahati Benekditus Baeha is serving a five-year jail term for embezzling Rp 3.3 billion earmarked for disaster relief.
The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) last year also arrested the former head of South Nias district Fahuwusa Laia, accused of attempting to provide an official from the General Elections Commission (KPU) with a Rp 99 million bribe.
But Faisar Jihadi, a coordinator for United Nations Development Fund, said much of that corruption culture has changed.
“The  earthquake has brought much-needed attention from the central government to Nias and so little by little we see competent and trustworthy people being appointed to fill public posts,” he said.
But there are those who still adhere to old practices.
Ilyas Tanjung, a fisherman based in Gunung Sitoli, said corruption still played a huge part in how aid was channeled. “Fishing boats are being handed out to rich boat owners instead of poor fishermen,” he said.
“I was surprised when one donor came to us and asked us about the fishing boats we were supposed to be enjoying. I asked them ‘What boats?’ ”
Arototona Mendrofa, chief of South Nias’ BPBD, highlighted an incident on Nov. 30 in Mazo subdistrict where six people were killed by a landslide that buried a local village.
“I called the district police chief and told him ‘This is a human catastrophe, I need help from your men.’ And help they did,” he said at his office, an old bus station converted into an evacuation and relief center located on the outskirts of South Nias capital Teluk Dalam.
BPBD, though, needed more than what the police could give it. With people still trapped beneath the rubble, Arototona asked for excavators that would allow his workers to clear the thick layer of earth and rescue the victims. He was told the only person who had them was a member of the district’s Regional Representatives Council (DPRD).
“We lobbied and lobbied, saying that there were people in need of his help,” Arototona said, referring to the DPRD member. “But he wasn’t moved. Finally he agreed to send his excavator to the area but only if we paid a daily rent of Rp 8 million.”
South Nias was hit hardest by the 2005 quake and was the only area in the island affected by the December 2004 tsunami. The roads are littered with skeletons of former homes that have long been abandoned by their owners. Remains of fiberglass and wooden boats can be found far inland, some crashing into homes and bringing much of the structure inside.
Only minutes from the once-devastated area, surrounded by rustic wooden homes of poor fishermen, stands a marble-clad, two-story mansion with gates fashioned to resemble a medieval European fortress. The house, a guide told me, belonged to that council member who refused to freely give out his excavator to November rescue mission.
Remote fishing community Bozihona in Nias district is one of the few remaining places where curious children still jubilantly chase after cars to tap on their metal bodies.
The 2005 quake triggered a tsunami that only affected this part of the island. Village chief Darmin Tanjung said that when the earthquake struck in the wee hours of March 28 that year, villagers rushed to higher ground in pitch black conditions.
They returned to see that their village had been ravaged by seawater, reducing 115 homes to rubble. The homes that were spared had been looted by people from neighboring villages.
The quake also changed nearby river flows and tidal patterns. The sea has encroached 500 meters inland, turning a once teeming neighborhood into barren swamps, submerged when the tide is high.
“There used to be three rows of homes on what is now a swamp,” Darmin said. “And now the river is slowly moving to the north and would eventually swallow the rest of the village unless something is done.”
As Bozihona sees its land reclaimed by the sea, further north in North Nias’ Tureloto village the sea floor has risen by two meters, creating new land. New homes and shops are being built on top of the now-exposed coral reefs.
But for Faisar, the UNDP coordinator, the biggest changes are evident in the islanders’ attitude toward disaster. In 2008, the central government mandated the establishment of district-level BPBD and districts like Nias and South Nias were the first to adopt the decree.
Just five months after UNDP intervened in 2010 and conducted discussions with local officials, the Nias and South Nias BPBDs were established, he said.
Inspired by the other districts, North Nias followed suit in 2011, and West Nias is trying to do so as well.
Arototona, the South Nias BPBD chief, recalled the days after the 2005 earthquake when a dedicated disaster mitigation agency was absent.
“Coordination was slow and no one dared to make a decision because it involved a complicated layer of bureaucratic red tape and overlapping authority,” he said.
“One week [after the 2005 quake] nobody did anything because there were no guidelines of what to do and who was in charge of what. Meanwhile people were screaming [for aid] out of frustration and trauma.”
Investing in the future
Yanus Larosa, chief of Nias district’s education office, said the 2005 earthquake highlighted the need for disaster preparedness to be taught at an early age. The office is now preparing a disaster mitigation course to be integrated into the school curriculum.
“We have our students make poetry about disaster during their Bahasa Indonesia lessons, and measure the degree of landslide-prone areas during math,” Yanus said. “Students taking science lessons learn the importance of reforestation.”
UNDP’s Faisar said there was a need for teachers to have a mutual understanding about disaster preparedness.
“When [UNDP] first came we found that the students are being taught different things by their teachers and NGOs,” he said.
“In the case of an earthquake, for example, one party would suggest it was better for them to stay in their classrooms and hide underneath tables. But another party would say it was better to just run. So, the students get confused as to what exactly they should do when the real quake strikes.”
UNDP has sponsored trainings for 50 teachers in the Nias district with the aim of making them trainers for other teachers. One such trainer is Tonuasa Lapau, an elementary school principal from Gido subdistrict.
“Before this, whenever there was an emergency all we knew what to do was run,” he said. “This goes for both students and teachers. Now we understand there is a need for an evacuation route, an assembly point and preparedness among our students and teachers.” Now, he added, twice a year the school stages an emergency drill.
But the island has yet to tackle one of its deepest problems: the need for a real economy, not one that is dependent on the continuous creation of public jobs. With the central government putting a break on the creation of new provinces, at least Nias won’t have to worry about building a governor’s or provincial offices anytime soon.
Fiferi Murni, a UNDP project manager, highlighted a recent visit by Thai diplomats interested in establishing a rubber processing plant in the island.
“That way Nias can earn more than they would by just producing raw materials,” Fiferi said.
I didn’t sleep well on my final night on the island as pounding waves near my hotel room kept me up all night. Decades of neglect has meant that the majority of Nias residents have jubilantly welcomed the major changes the island has undergone. But at this stage, there is no saying where the transformation might lead.
As I looked into the eyes of the elementary school children proudly displaying what they would do in the event of an earthquake, showing how they would tend their wounded peers, my mind eased a bit. At least Nias would know what to do when the next major disaster strikes.