Volcanoes test Indonesia’s disaster management

Author: Jonatan A. Lassa, RSIS

After about 400 years of silence, the Sinabung volcano in North Sumatra, Indonesia, has erupted twice in the last five years. The first time was on 27 August 2010. The eruptions lasted for two days, and resulted in no casualties. The second, ongoing eruption period began on 15 September 2013. Since then, eruptions have caused the deaths of at least 45 people, 31 of whom were staying in poorly managed temporary shelters. About 30,000 people have been evacuated out of the danger zone. Yet the formal response system remains weak. LEARN (an NGO) reports that the shelters lack basic water and sanitation facilities, and provide little privacy.

The Indonesian media and the public blame the government. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono finally paid a visit to Sinabung in January this year. But public dissatisfaction has risen since the violent eruption of Kelud volcano on 13 February, with the general public and politicians criticising the president for responding more promptly to the Kelud eruption, because the volcano is located on Java, the island where the majority of voters live.

The national disaster management agency blames the problems on the Karo district government’s failure to establish a new disaster management plan. In their view, the absence of a local incident commander who could take charge before the arrival of the national authority worsened the crisis.

Yet this is not the whole story. Local governments often do not have the adequate knowledge of volcano dangers. Consequently, most of their preparedness and early warning measures are developed as dangers emerge. As the level of danger fluctuates, the danger zone is re-defined, and new evacuation policies are made. While this approach may seem logical given the nature of uncertainty of volcanic eruptions, it also gives local people and incident commanders a very short lead time to respond to the revised warnings.

The response to the most recent Kelud volcano eruption provides an example of these problems in action. The National Centre of Volcano and Geological Hazard Mitigation (PVMBG) failed to develop adequate preparedness scenarios. Prior to the eruption, PVMBG revised the defined danger zone twice: first five kilometres and then 10 kilometres was defined as the danger zone. The time distance from the second defined danger zone to the eruption was only an hour. The calculation of the danger zone was based on a previous Kelud volcano eruption which took place in 2007. That eruption recorded a score of 2 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), and was widely considered to be an anomaly because it was the first time that the volcano had experienced a non-explosive eruption in known history. However, since the year 1000 CE, there have been at least 20 recorded eruptions which have recorded a score of VEI 3 and six with a score of VEI 4. Therefore, it is hard to imagine why the PVMBG’s preparedness policy was developed by reference to only the most recent eruption, rather than the volcano’s entire eruption history.

The recent volcano eruptions have tested the progress of Indonesian disaster management reform which began in 2007 at the national level. There are still many outstanding issues. First, the response system should target vulnerable populations, such as the elderly. In the Sinabung eruption, 22 of the 31 people who died in shelters were over the age of 50. Second, the approach to developing emergency protocol needs to be more scientifically rigorous. Volcano warning systems and preparedness scenarios should be based on a more comprehensive sample of known and unknown historic eruptions. Third, disaster preparedness and response scenarios should involve more informed and interested stakeholders. Fourth, and finally, there is an urgent need for the government to improve the quality of its risk communication strategy (including its efforts to communicate uncertainty) with respect to the people living in hotspots, as well as the public at large.

Jonatan A. Lassa is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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