Foreign aid told to wait amid volcano eruption in Indonesia

Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra, Indonesia, where 14 people have died after getting caught in the volcano's ash cloud when it erupted on Feb. 1. Photo by: Drriss & Marrionn / CC BY-NC-SA

Almost three months after its first volcanic eruption in recent times, Mount Sinabung in northern Indonesia continues to inflict damage after at least 14 more people, including children, died after getting caught in the volcano’s scorching ash cloud on Saturday — a growing figure as days go by, but something that shouldn’t alarm the international aid community just yet.

That’s according to a United Nations official based in the country, who stressed that the international development community, despite its good intentions to always help out in times of disaster, should in this case let the governments figure it out on its own first because it knows best how to respond to the needs of their own people.

Foreign aid workers should only be deployed if the government asks them to, noted Nova Ratnanto, emergency response specialist at the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Indonesia.

“In my opinion, the government is confident in making use and exhaust its national resources. The government has appointed several agencies including the disaster management to lead other ministries to join in and work in the locations,” Ratnanto told Devex. “So as long as we don’t hear from the government yet, international assistance will have to stand by.”

He added: “When we convey to them [what’s needed], they could easily meet the need. They could have it in their operational plans … What [they should] do, I think for now, is monitor and wait whether in one second or two they are needed.”

The almost 10,000 families displaced by the volcanic eruption are currently housed about 10 km away from the crater, according to Ratnanto, who said the the government fears more people may have perished as bodies have been retrieved only from the safe areas inside the exclusion zone.

“The restriction is the path of the lava flow, so they can only retrace and retrieve the bodies in the safest place [not within the 5 km radius considered as the hazard zone],” he explained.

Finding one’s place

So far, a handful of international organizations, including U.N. agencies like the World Food Program and UNICEF, have been active in helping the displaced by the eruption, but all through previously established programs in collaboration with government ministries.

“What the United Nations [and other groups] are doing is support the resources in the different areas affected because the government, so far, has not asked for international assistance considering that some international agencies have local partners. The government is so far responding to the emergency,” he said.

This is in contrast with what happened three months ago in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, where the devastation was much more severe and extended. In addition, in that case the storm itself was gone after a day, whereas Mount Sinabung continues to threaten local communities with further eruptions.

Ratnanto explained this situation makes it harder for the international community to fully commit and — in principle — commit to a specific amount of aid.

“It will be different than if you see Haiyan in the Philippines that some of the international groups and U.N. agencies are free to provide assistance, no. Indirectly, the U.N. agencies, at this moment, are doing that while monitoring the situation and are standing by,” he noted. “This is a slow-moving disaster. We cannot predict when it will end.”

But, at the end of the day, it’s all about finding one’s right place in the grander scheme of the relief and rehabilitation operations. Ratnanto said waiting for the call for help is tantamount to respecting the sovereignty and capacity of a nation as well as being humble to admit that people — ideally — know best how they will recover from the tragedy.

“This is so because it’s political really. First because the president already gave directions to the ministries. We need to allow the government to implement what the instructions are. We cannot just simply jump in. No, we cannot. So we let them do and we are supporting them,” he concluded.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.