Indonesia remains ill-prepared to deal with major disasters, despite having experienced one calamity after another in recent years, officials and experts say.

The country was again tested on 2 September, when a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck off the heavily populated island of Java, leaving 80 people dead and at least 47 missing.

The quake also displaced 186,637 people and damaged about 150,000 houses and other buildings, according to the National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB) on 10 September.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago, is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanic activity because tectonic plates meet there.

More than 170,000 people were killed in Indonesia by the December 2004 Asian tsunami, while in 2006, over 3,000 people perished after an earthquake near Yogyakarta city in Java.

Quick response needed

Recognizing the need for improved response systems, the Indonesian parliament passed a bill on disaster management in 2007, paving the way for the creation of the BNPB.

The BNPB, which was set up last year, is tasked with preventing disasters, coordinating relief efforts and overseeing post-disaster reconstruction.

The law also calls for a Regional Disaster Management Agency in each of Indonesia’s 32 provinces. But so far, only 18 provinces have set up such bodies, BNPB spokesman Priyadi Kardono told IRIN.

“Even in those 18 provinces, the agencies are not necessarily 100 percent functional,” Kardono said.

“Money is the problem. New agencies require new rules, new staff and it takes a lot of money,” he said.

Photo: ReliefWeb
This month’s powerful earthquake struck near the Indonesian island of Java. The epicentre (marked in red) was offshore, about 200 km south of the capital Jakarta

Kardono said the lack of resources and coordination was highlighted after the 2 September earthquake.

Aid was slow to reach the survivors because local administrations did not have enough manpower to distribute it, he said.

“The amount of aid is adequate, but distribution was uneven because of limited resources, including people and transport,” Kardono said.

Early warning systems

Last November, Indonesia launched a tsunami warning system designed to protect coastal residents.

Officials said the complex system of sensors – comprising seismometers, GPS instruments, tide gauges and buoys, as well as ocean bottom pressure sensors – and satellite communications would be ready by 2010.

But Danny Hilman, a tsunami expert at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said the system was still rudimentary. Of three deep-sea tsunami warning buoys set up after 2004, two were damaged, he said.

“In terms of equipment, so far only seismic sensors are working. The system is still in its very simple form,” he said.

Hilman also said very little geological research had been conducted to determine areas prone to earthquakes and tsunamis.

“There’s still very little knowledge on earthquake sources, except for Sumatra [the country’s largest island],” Hilman said. “The identification of earthquake sources is a pre-condition for an early warning system.

“Should there be a tsunami next week, the casualties would still be high,” he warned.

Communication problems

Fauzi, head of the earthquake centre at the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, said his office issued a tsunami warning four minutes after the 2 September earthquake.

“We issued the warning. The question is how to disseminate information to the public and whether the local governments are prepared,” said Fauzi.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
More than 170,000 Indonesians died in the 2004 Asian tsuanami

BNPB’s Kardono said the government was negotiating with a South Korean company to install a warning system whereby earthquake information received by the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency would be relayed to government offices, mosques and cellular base stations, which would then transmit the message to millions of mobile-phone users.

The system is expected to be in place by the end of this year, Kardono said.

Jakarta largely protected

The 2 September quake was felt strongly in Jakarta, sending people running from their homes and office towers in panic.

But geologists say the country’s largest city is largely protected because it does not sit on a geological faultline.

Hilman said most high-rise buildings in Jakarta were designed to be able to withstand earthquakes measuring up to level eight on the Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI) scale – but the bar should be set higher.

The 2 September quake was felt in Jakarta at four on the MMI scale.

A 7.5 magnitude quake in the Java Sea on 8 August 2007 was felt strongly in Jakarta and caused some damage, but no casualties.

“The current buildings were built under the 2002 building and construction law, but the 2007 earthquake showed that we need a stronger regulation on buildings,” he said.



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