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How should we put people at the centre of disaster risk management?

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Dwi Rahardiani

In September 2018, strings of earthquakes triggered multi-disasters in several areas of Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. The 7.4 magnitude earthquake triggered a six-metre tsunami in Palu, followed by hundreds of aftershocks that rocked Palu, Donggala, Sigi, and Poso, including one with 6.0 magnitude in Donggala regency.

Survivors attempting to seek protection found an even more shocking danger than the initial tsunami: liquefaction, where the ground turns to liquid and loses its ability to bear structures like buildings. ‘It’s like a vortex of mud, sucking all above them,’ said Kin Saluah, a survivor witnessing his house sinking.

As of 21 October, 2,256 people were dead, 4,612 were injured, 223,751 displaced, and 113 were declared missing, the majority trapped and buried under collapsed buildings. Disaster risk management (DRM) might not alter the likelihood of earthquakes, but can have a sizeable effect on how devastating they are in loss of human life.

Disaster risk management in Indonesia

Indonesia is naturally prone to constant risk to multiple hazards, including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, and tsunami. Most famously, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and cost £2 billion in damages. It was a turning point for the Government of Indonesia’s efforts to reduce disaster risk.

The country enacted the disaster management law in 2007 and established the National Agency for Disaster Risk Management (BNPB) in 2008. The DRM plan has been included in the country’s medium-term development plan (RPJMN 2015 -2019), establishing a clear target to reduce disaster risk, including the development of contingency plans for every disaster-prone city. The government also spends $300-500 million annually on post-disaster reconstruction; 0.3% of national GDP and nearly 45% of provincial GDP.  

Despite these efforts, the events in Palu raised questions. What did we actually learn from the tsunami in 2004? To what extent are the risks understood? Why didn’t the tsunami early warning system work? What can we do to avoid this happening again?

Earthquake and liquefaction – an old foe

Earthquakes are not new to the area. One piece of folklore suggests that ‘Palu’ was derived from the word Topalu’e – ‘a raised land’. Centuries ago, the area was buried. Enormous earthquakes then raised the area into its current position. There is evidence of local wisdom related to living with earthquakes: for instance, the indigenous communities’ traditional houses in the province were mostly wooden stilt-houses. When an earthquake hit Kulawi in the 1960s, the stilts of these houses were destroyed but the houses floated.

And it’s not just folklore, of course. At least 10 earthquakes with magnitude of more than 5 SR have been recorded in this area since 1927. The provincial Meteorological, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) of Central Sulawesi said that the area has actually been rocked by 30 earthquakes per day since June 2018. These quakes were caused by the shifts in the Palu-Koro fault – the most active fault in Sulawesi with a slip-rate of 42 mm per year. The potential for liquefaction in Palu was even highlighted by a geological investigation report developed by the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry in 2012. The report measures the potential using Liquefaction Potential Index, on which five-15 are considered high and above 15 is very high. 30 sub-districts were measured, of which 11 were considered very high and eight were high.

Despite these thorough and scientific findings and predictions, policies remain lacking. Likewise, most of the affected people were unprepared for the risks they faced. Social media spread this information virally, but only after the disasters occurred. There is a significant gap in reducing the risks of this predicted disasters, from the minimum knowledge of people living in disaster-prone areas, up to an insufficient implementation of the disaster risk strategy in the sub-national level.  

Fixing governance and improving resilience

In Indonesia, BNPB is the primary agency responsible for coordinating preparedness, response, prevention and mitigation, and rehabilitation and recovery in relation to disaster. BNPB has been progressing well in building its cadres at both national and sub-national level throughout Indonesia. However, their major challenge still lay in the multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary nature of the disaster management, requiring robust collaboration and communication between government and private sectors, and improved resilience of people living in the disaster areas.

After the 2004 tsunami, and with the help of billions of rupiah of foreign aid, the Government of Indonesia set up InaTEWS, a tsunami early warning system. The effectiveness of the system has been called into question, after Palu. Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) revoked the tsunami warning based on its visual monitoring and information gathered from the tsunami detection buoys, which haven’t been operational since 2012.

The strong push on the use of technology for disaster management might not be sufficient. Our disaster management improvement needs to focus on people’s capacity in order to build a resilient community. For instance, many of the casualties in Palu were due to the delay in evacuation; there is currently no information, no sirens, no planning, and no preparedness relating to evacuation. Consistent disaster risk awareness building is a must, and it needs to start at the earliest age, and continue targeting all age groups. In addition to technical installations, early warning systems must be internalised within the community. Government and non-government partners can build people’s capacity for coordinating DRM, while the provision of community resilience programmes and robust evaluation and learning from the Palu disaster can help prevent a repetition of its effects.

A system-wide approach

As we have learned in researching building national and local DRM capacity, piecemeal and ‘projectised’ approaches to DRM will not work as well as a systematic and coordinated approach – a system-wide change to make coherent strides towards disaster risk reduction. System-wide doesn’t mean one-size-fits-all, of course; the geography of Indonesia makes it particularly crucial that we understand the capacity and resources of each region to avoid a limited, Java-centric approach to DRM. The establishment of regional agencies for disaster management (BPBD) in several disaster-prone provinces has set a good precedent for building local capacity.

We have to move beyond a focus on short-term emergency management to building capacity in disaster prevention, mitigation, and long-term recovery, linking DRM with the broader livelihoods priorities of the poor, and understanding and planning for long-term changes in risk. These efforts will hopefully strengthen Indonesia’s position as a good mentor in regional and global level of disaster preparedness and humanitarian responses.

Image credit: Herwin Bahar /