Indonesia: A tsunami of mud and water

By Andre Vltchek

JAKARTA: Only those who made the effort to wake up early and go to pray at the local mosque survived. For dozens of other men and women in the Central Javan town of Cijeruk it was a ghastly burial on the morning of January 5 under mud and rocks which destroyed more than 100 houses.

"The local government feared that at least 300 persons were buried and killed by the mud," a UN statement said. Few days earlier, on New Year's day a flash flood had killed 77 people and destroyed hundreds of houses in Jember, East Java.

As it is common in Indonesia, the exact number of victims in both these disasters will never be known. Census figures are usually outdated and incomplete and the precise numbers of people living in these villages is unknown.

Every year landslides and flash floods caused by heavy rain kill hundreds of people in this vast archipelago inhabited by almost 250 million people. Torrential rains of the wet season often overwhelm poor and densely populated villages unprepared for any major disaster.

As was the case in Aceh after the devastating tsunami struck a year earlier, primitively equipped rescue teams were struggling, often failing to reach survivors. Congested and inadequate roads, many of them damaged by rain, made emergency missions extremely difficult. Some rescue workers had to labor with their bare hands. The army had been called in, but its badly paid and trained members were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tragedy. Thousands of bystanders -- men and women from neighboring villages -- came to observe the scene of tragedy on foot or on motorbikes, further clogging notoriously bad roads around destroyed villages.

Although floods and landslides occur on a yearly basis killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless, Indonesia does not have any coherent plan to relocate and house survivors of these disasters.

Java is the most densely populated island on earth and it is becoming obvious that this narrow strip of land squeezed between the Indian Ocean and Java Sea simply cannot support its present population of over 140 million. Unplanned construction and intensive illegal logging, particularly in Java, is one of the main reasons for landslides.

Environment News Network (ENN) claims that "Forest Watch Indonesia and other environmentalists... have called on the government to get tough on logging, especially illegal cutting that contributes to 90 percent of all timber. By some estimates, 75 million hectares (185 million acres) of an estimated 120 million hectares (297 million acres) of forests in the country have been degraded."

The Indonesian government and some conservation groups claim that disasters happen mainly due to the makeup of Central Java, where thousands live in flood-prone areas and farmers have torn down forests to clear agricultural land and plantations.

But in impoverished Indonesia, many villages are simply unable to survive without reliance on illegal logging. One citizen of a village destroyed by landslides in East Java recently declared: "Of course we are involved in illegal logging, and what else can we do? If we don't do it, it would be done by outsiders".

Indonesian GDP per capita declined to annual 900 USD after the Asian Financial Crises of 1997. Currently, prices in Indonesia are some of the highest in Southeast Asia and inflation skyrocketed to over 18 percent after the government removed fuel subsidies last year. In Java, many farmers can't afford to eat rice anymore. State social welfare policies remain grossly inadequate. To many, illegal logging seems to be the easiest if often deadly short term solution.

Meteorologists are predicting unusually heavy rainfalls during this year's wet season; not only in Java but all over the Indonesian archipelago. Lack of equipment, expertise and prevention programs on the part of Indonesian government can mean that an extremely high number of people can lose their lives between now and the end of February 2006. While causes of disasters as well as potentially endangered areas are well known, the government has no sound strategy -- it reacts only after the tragedy takes place and its reaction is rarely effective. There is no blueprint for preventive relocation of villages nor for reinforcing hills and mountains on which they are built. Reforestation programs are still in infantile stages.

It is almost as if Indonesian society is resigned to live with the outcome of some of the most devastating disasters on earth, instead of preventing them.

(, January 18, 2006)