LATEST NATURAL DISASTERS IN INDONESIA


Indonesia: East Java mudflow held in check by dikes – but for how long?
January 18, 2008, 10:04 am
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 (IRIN) – It is fair to say the Sidoargjo mudflow in East Java Province, Indonesia, qualifies as a truly unique disaster, even in a country that is considered by many experts the most disaster-prone in the world, what with its frequent earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and landslides.According to Sucahyono, an engineer with the Sidoargjo Mudflow Mitigation Agency, a government entity, the mudflow has now inundated some 650 hectares of land formerly replete with fish farms, sugar plantations, rice paddies and factories.

While there is no current estimate of total damage, a November 2006 government assessment reported that 1,810 houses, 18 schools, two government offices, 20 factories and 15 mosques had been engulfed by the mud.

Unlike most other disasters which usually end reasonably quickly, the Sidoargjo mudflow, which is in an area some 30km south of Surabaya City, the capital of East Java Province, just keeps on spouting.

The mud volcano, as some scientists are defining it, has been spewing out as much as 125,000 cubic metres per day for more than a year and a half now, according to the Sidoarjo Mudflow Mitigation Agency. “Some experts are telling us it could continue emitting mud for the next 30 years,” said Sucahyono, although he is sceptical that anyone knows for sure.

Conflicting views on the cause

The mud began to flow on 29 May 2006, only two days after a major earthquake occurred in Yogyakarta. Many experts speculated that the earthquake triggered the muddy eruption. But the fact that the hot mud started spewing out only 200 metres from a gas drilling operation of the PT Lapindo Brantas company led others, including angry local residents, to surmise that the drilling operation struck mud – vast reserves of it – not gas.

The dispute over who or what is to blame for the disaster – and whether it is a technological disaster (like Bhopal) or a natural disaster will keep lawyers and observers busy for years.

Since the initial eruption in 2006, a total of 13,000 families, (some 50,000 people) have been relocated, Sofyan Hadi, deputy head of operations for the Sidoarjo Mudflow Mitigation Agency, told IRIN.

A home submerged

Mueslinah, a 37-year-old mother of four, was one of those who had to flee the mud in 2006. “I was born and lived my entire life in Sereng town [in Sidoargjo District],” she told IRIN as we stood on a nine meter levée built to contain the mud, with dozens of trucks arriving with dirt to build it higher. “My husband was a farmer,” she said, “and I had an ice-making company… We were only able to salvage a few possessions before our house and land became submerged in the mud,” Mueslinah said.

“We lived for five months as IDPs [internally displaced persons] in a tent complex,” she said. “The Lapinto Brantas company paid for it.” Her family has also received 20 percent compensation – 54 million rupiah – from the company for the loss of their home.

According to Sucahyono of the Mitigation Agency, most displaced families have now received the 20 percent compensation for their losses. He told IRIN that full compensation should be paid to most families by May 2009.

Disaster tourism

Most of the displaced families have found it difficult to establish new livelihoods. “I have to find my own money and it’s hard,” Mueslinah told IRIN. She, like some others who were displaced, is currently in the disaster tourism business. They charge a fee for visitors to the site, and there appear to be many; and 50,000 rupiah for a CD that chronicles the various stages of the continuing mudflow disaster. It could be a growth industry for sometime to come.

The government has allocated 500 billion rupiah (US$55 million) from the 2007 national budget for the agency to manage the mudflow and its impact on the community. This includes repairing railway lines, roads and electricity facilities. It has also provided 10 billion rupiah ($1.1 million) for living allowances to some 10,000 families for community development activities and public facilities.

Dikes

A major component of managing the mudflow has been the building of huge earthen dikes – some as high as 18 metres – to contain the mud and keep it from flowing into other communities. But ultimately, the agency’s plan is to drain much of the mud down a nearby river, the Porong. According to Sucahyono, thus far they have had only limited success.

The seasonal floods have caused the dikes to be breached and nearby communities, highways and railway lines have been submerged – with the latest incident on 4 January.

“We are worried about the dikes holding,” said Sucahyono, noting that the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency of East Java is forecasting additional heavy rains at the end of January until the beginning of February.

Land subsidence

Land subsidence is an additional problem. Due to the weight of the mud and flooding, the land has been sinking, with one recent government estimate putting the subsidence rate at 6 centimetres per day. The subsidence is diverting the mud in the wrong direction, weakening the dikes even more, said Sucahyono. A further challenge, he said, is pumping the mud into the river and downstream. “The mud is so thick and heavy that the pumps can’t handle it,” he said.

“All I want is the full compensation I am due,” Mueslinah told IRIN. But others who were displaced are not so sanguine. A man standing nearby, who did not give his name, said: “I simply want to submerge whoever is responsible for all of this into that hot mud hole over there.”

bj/cb


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