Indonesia disaster reveals community preparedness shortfalls

Tents that shelter people displaced by the recent earthquake and resulting tsunami in the front yard of the Great Mosque of Palu in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by: Arimacs Wilander / UNICEF

BANGKOK — Facing a long and slow recovery from the dual disaster that devastated parts of Central Sulawesi two weeks ago, Indonesia must also make important choices about how it will prepare communities for future events.

The country’s early warning system has come under fire after outdated or nonfunctioning technology hindered the delivery of alerts that could have provided residents with a few life-saving minutes to reach higher ground. Still, a sophisticated system means little if it isn’t attached to heightened public awareness about how to respond to warnings or weather signals. Investing in connecting those dots and in neighbor-to-neighbor community preparedness should take top priority throughout the region, several experts told Devex.

The tsunami and earthquake that killed nearly 2,000 people and displaced 75,000 in Indonesia presented a unique mix of geological and geographical characteristics that would be difficult for any country to prepare for.

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A massive quake — caused by a different kind of plate movement than usually sets off a high-speed wave — first downed electricity and destroyed lines of communication, then three tsunami waves slammed into a narrow bay, heightening the impact on the coastal city of Palu. It’s unclear whether early warnings, even if the government had invested in more sophisticated technology, would have had the life-saving effect they are intended to — especially if the warnings mean little to the people who receive them.

“In this instance, physical vulnerability — geographic and infrastructure — and social vulnerability — a lack of awareness — mattered,” United Nations Development Programme Indonesia said in a written statement to Devex. “Many people did not know what to do, resulting in higher than usual casualties.”

Indonesia had plans to update its system for tsunami warnings — some of which was stolen or damaged in 2012 — but the process stalled due to interagency squabbles, according to reporting by the AP.

An improved system for detection will be crucial for the country to better predict disasters, but “I think maybe we are falling into the trap of trusting the technology,” said Peeranan Towashiraporn, who specializes in earthquake engineering and disaster risk assessment for the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center.

“A lot of people tend to think that having technology will solve all the problems, but there's a lot of cases where you have advanced technology, but people could not understand, could not use that technology. Then it’s useless.”

In Indonesia’s case, the problem isn’t that the local science community or the national meteorological agency don’t already have a good grasp of the geology and seismology underneath the country that poses risks, but rather a gap between the information scientists produce — like risk maps — and the people who could use that information to take action.  

“This is not only in Indonesia, it happens throughout many countries,” Towashiraporn said. “To translate scientific information to practical use, I think that there's still a gap there.”

Criticism of Indonesia’s system has extended to the lack of sirens to warn residents — many of whom were still on the beach in Palu when the tsunami struck. But with a siren or an SMS alert — two common ways national meteorological agencies alert those at risk — people require training on what the different warning signals mean. Communicating that information should start with community meetings to promote awareness in areas at high risk of earthquakes or tsunamis, Towashiraporn said.

Evacuation maps and family plans are also key, according to UNDP Indonesia, but the most important disaster resilience action is to ensure communities can identify the signs of a tsunami themselves, such as ground shaking, a visible receding wave, and ocean roar, the agency said. Knowing what to do and where to go — namely, moving to higher ground to an evacuation center if available, or running inland — can save lives.

In the Asia-Pacific region, UNDP, with support from Japan and in partnership with several stakeholders, has been conducting tsunami drills in schools in high-risk areas. As of September 2018, 50,976 students, teachers, and members of school administration have participated in 101 school drills, and evacuation plans were developed across 18 countries. Through its Safer Communities Disaster Risk Reduction project, UNDP conducted tsunami and quake drills with a local partner when the project was in Palu from 2009-2011.

“Since our project left Palu in 2011, the local communities had full ownership and responsibility to sustain the practices,” UNDP Indonesia told Devex.

Anggraini Dewi, senior risk assessment specialist at the ADPC, is from Indonesia and expected that the government would have prioritized ongoing evacuation drills on Sulawesi considering its precarious position in the Pacific Basin’s “Ring of Fire,” atop numerous fault lines that have produced some of the most deadly earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions in history. But the drills don’t seem widespread, she said, nor are they held regularly.

“Our people, especially in Palu, in Sulawesi, we are aware actually we are located in the Ring of Fire. But what could be done, being located here? What action can we take? People tend to forget. And ignore. It’s not only the government’s responsibility, but the community as well,” Dewi said of keeping up disaster preparedness practices.

Indonesia Red Cross recently had a small evacuation simulation training, according to logistics lead Tia Kurniawan Sarpras, but it’s aim was to build the capacity of local Indonesian Red Cross volunteers. Their team on the ground hasn’t heard any accounts from survivors who practiced evacuation activities, said Zulaikha Nurain Mudzar, senior officer for communications and knowledge sharing at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Asia Pacific.

It can take hours to mobilize official agencies responsible for search and rescue after an earthquake and tsunami hit. During that crucial time, local knowledge and mutual aid are most useful, and an increased emphasis on “neighbor-to-neighbor type” of interactions will increase resilience, according to UNDP Indonesia. In countries such as Japan and Nepal, when major earthquakes hit in recent years, the majority of rescues of those trapped under collapsed buildings were undertaken by neighbors, the U.N. agency said.

But the fact that several buoys, a key piece of Indonesia’s early warning system that detect changes in sea level, were vandalized in 2012 and remained inoperable reveals that the community doesn’t understand the importance of the system or what it represents, ADPC’s Dewi told Devex. Indonesia must learn from this expensive disaster and invest not only in new warning tech, but also in coordination between scientists and government agencies to prioritize community understanding, she said.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.