Indonesia: six months on from volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunami

By Ahmad Husein (IFRC) and Aulia Arriani (Indonesian Red Cross) in Indionesia

October 2010 proved to be one of most challenging months the Indonesian Red Cross or Palang Merah Indonesia (PMI), has faced in recent years, as the country was hit by a double disaster. In Central Java and Yogyakarta province the eruption of Mount Merapi caused 40 casualties. And at the same time, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale resulted in a tsunami which hit the Mentawai islands in West Sumatra and caused the deaths of 400 people.

Between Mentawi and Merapi, approximately 103,750 people were left in need of support. The IFRC responded by launching an emergency appeal, calling for 5 million Swiss Francs (equivalent to approximately 5 million US dollars/3.7 million euro) to support the Indonesian Red Cross in their response. Since then, PMI has constructed 516 shelters for 2,500 families on Pagai Selatan Island, Mentawai and delivered health services through mobile clinics following the tsunami.

Bonapasius, a resident of Purorogat hamlet on the Pagai Selatan coast of the Mentawai islands, clearly remembers how the disaster had totally crushed his family’s life. “There was nothing left. I had no house to live in or any belongings either, but I am lucky as all my family members survived,” he said.

The situation for Bonapasius and his family changed when PMI started to build shelters in a relocation site called KM 37. The shelter was completed in February and Bonafasius, his wife and four children now enjoy their new small wooden home. “I am now more than ready to continue my life,” he said.

Following the tsunami, shelter was immediately identified by PMI as one of the biggest problems. Despite the society’s experience in constructing temporary shelters following the Padang earthquake in 2009, responding to the needs on the Mentawai islands was a major challenge. Mentawai is a collection of islands, 150 kilometres off the West Sumatra coast. It takes at least 13 hours to reach the island from Padang, the capital city of the province. Bad weather regularly hampered efforts to bring essential materials to the islands.

The Red Cross involved the affected communities in building their shelters from the very beginning of the process. As the government had moved the communities from affected villages to four different areas, 120 PMI volunteers came to the islands from West Sumatra to work with the community in those four sites.

These PMI volunteers met with community leaders to ensure that the support given met their needs, as well as to ensure that no family or individual would fall through the net. In the distribution of cash grants, PMI transferred to the community group account rather than individual personal accounts, eventually working with over 120 groups. These communities also assisted Red Cross volunteers in building the shelters. Through this approach, a sense of belonging developed among the those benefiting from the programme. Families were also free to add a personal touch their shelters by modifying rooms or adding a terrace.

Meanwhile at Merapi, although the volcanic activity had reduced, secondary hazards continued to threaten communities living near the volcano. The primary risk was from volcanic ash. As well as damaging the local infrastructure, falling ash also caused environmental problems and a lack of clean water. A cold lava flood four months after the eruption, destroyed two bridges connecting Yogyakarta and Magelang and paralyzed transportation between the two cities.

Knowing that safe drinking water was in critical need for those around the volcano, PMI distributed more than 31 million litres of water to affected people in four districts of Central Java and Yogyakarta in the five months following the main eruption.

“This is the most volume of water we ever provided to communities in a disaster,” said Dr. Lilis Wijaya, PMI’s head of health and social service division. The operation in Merapi also gave our water and sanitation team another new experience: the longest assignment they ever had.

PMI has now completed the installation of water tanks in several villages along with the distribution of hoes and shovels for villagers to clean their land and restart their lives.

In the Merapi operation, PMI mobilized its medical action team to work in areas not covered by local puskesmas (community health centres), reaching more than 1,600 people. PMI also conducted health promotion operations in three sub-districts in Central Java ensuring communities were aware of the threats from diseases such as malaria as part of the community health response. A psychosocial support programme also reached out to hundreds of school pupils affected by the disaster in Magelang district.