Indonesia has long been prone to natural disasters, including those that involve the hand of man, but in 2008 there has been a marked improvement in the country’s ability to deal with such events.
Despite the increase in the number of calamities that occurred across the country over the last few years, the number of victims has declined.
Priyadi Kardono, head of data and information at the Disaster Management National Agency, or BNPB, said that even though the data was yet to be scientifically reviewed — for example, taking into account the type and location of a disaster — the declining number of victims indicates an improvement in disaster mitigation in the country.
“People are more aware of natural disasters,” he said.
According to the data released by the Health Ministry’s Crisis Center last month, 359 calamities struck Indonesia in 2008, claiming 290 lives. Last year, 205 disasters resulted in a death toll of 649.
However, Priyadi said that the rising number of disasters was a concern, as not all of them were purely natural. “People cut down trees without knowing that it can lead to floods and landslides,” he explained.
Last month, at least 15 people were buried under a landslide in Cianjur, West Java Province, after heavy rain soaked the area for days. Reports show that the landslide may have also been caused by damaged forests and land clearance.
Priyadi said that in 2008, floods occurred almost every month in different areas of Indonesia, something that had never happened previously.
“Lighter rain now can inundate an area within hours,” he said, “and there’s a flood report every month.”
This is not necessarily just caused by more widespread rain but also points to man’s involvement in changing the environment and making it more susceptible to flooding. To deal with those disasters that need no help from man to bring death and destruction, the Indonesian Institute of Science, or LIPI, in 2008 established the Community Preparedness program, or Compress, to help people in disaster-prone areas be better aware of the risks they face.
The institute has been distributing information on earthquakes and tsunamis to local governments and residents in the provinces of Aceh, West Sumatra, West Java, Banten, Yogyakarta, Sulawesi, and Papua.
Haryadi Permana, coordinator of Compress, said that the program aimed to change people’s mind-set about disasters from something too horrible to contemplate to something that can be dealt with.
“We’re trying to change this paradigm so they will not be afraid to learn more about disasters,” he said, “then they will have the courage to face them.”
Irina Rafliana, the program’s advocacy coordinator, said that even though the government would stop allocating funds for Compress in 2009, LIPI would continue to assist local administrations in educating people about disaster mitigation.
A sprawling archipelago of 17,000 islands, Indonesia is prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, as it sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, a row of volcanoes encircling the Pacific basin. The biggest earthquake to shake the country in 2008 came last month, when a 7.7-magnitude temblor struck Gorontalo and Central Sulawesi provinces and killed at least six people, leaving thousands of others homeless.
None of this year’s earthquakes triggered any tsunamis. In November, the government launched the Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System, which will warn of a tsunami minutes after a major temblor takes place.
“We can call this the backbone of tsunami early warning systems along the Indian Ocean,” said Sri Woro Harijono, head of the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency. So far, four buoys capable of transferring a warning signal from the bottom of the sea have been deployed off the coast of Western Sumatra, Sumbawa Island in West Nusa Tenggara Province, and near the southern part of the Sunda Strait.
Meanwhile, man-made calamities have taken dozens of lives during 2008. On Sunday, at least 11 people were killed after their boat overturned off the northern coast of Central Java while performing a ceremony to mark the Javanese New Year .
The boat was designed to carry 20 passengers, but at least twice that number had been packed onto it.
In August, a passenger train collided into a coal carrier in Lampung, killing seven. Investigations revealed the accident was caused by a poor communication between a station officer and a signaler.
BNPB’s Priyadi is optimistic that the government body can do better in 2009 to educate people about disaster mitigation, as long as they have enough well-trained staff to carry out their work.