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Lombok earthquakes reveal that Indonesia’s disaster management is shaky

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A man carries a framed picture of Indonesian President Joko Widodo from a school damaged by an earthquake in Gunungsari, Lombok, Indonesia 12 August 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto/Ahmad Subaidi).

In Brief

In the span of scarcely one month, several strong earthquakes hit Lombok Island and surrounding parts of Indonesia. The most powerful of these struck early on 3 August 2018, hitting a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale. A tsunami warning was issued in the immediate aftermath, prompting people to flee to higher ground. After the main earthquake, at least 500 aftershocks were reported.


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Lombok and surrounding areas had already been hit by three earthquakes in the week or so prior to 3 August. Further strong earthquakes struck the area on 5 August (with a magnitude of 6.9) and on 19 August (with a magnitude of 6.5). The earthquake on 3 August alone killed at least 430 people and displaced about 350,000 others. All of those confirmed dead were Indonesians. Most deaths occurred near the epicentre in northern Lombok, a residential and less developed part of the island. The earthquakes collectively killed more than 500 people and damaged homes, infrastructure and other property worth about US$528 million.

Indonesia is an archipelagic state prone to a host of geological and other natural hazards — earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts and forest fires — due primarily to its vast territory and location in a tropical region of intense seismic and volcanic activity known as the ‘Ring of Fire’. The most devastating disaster to have affected Indonesia was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which originated in an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 9.0 off the west coast of Sumatra. The event left 225,000 people dead and affected over 530,000 people.

Earthquakes are probably the most frequent and devastating natural disasters in Indonesia. Since the tsunami, Indonesia has been hit by at least 12 earthquakes measuring a magnitude of 6.1 or higher, which have killed a total of 10,249 people. Because of the constant risk of natural disasters, the country would do well to prepare for such events — particularly earthquakes — on a regular basis.

Since the 2004 tsunami, Indonesia has invested substantial resources in disaster risk reduction. In 2008, the government replaced the National Disaster Management Coordinating Board, established in 1979, with the National Agency for Disaster Management (known locally as Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana or BNPB). In the same year, the government formed the Local Agency for Disaster Management (Badan Penanggulangan Bencana Daerah). The BNPB reports directly to the president and its chairperson is directly appointed by the president. These changes reflect the seriousness with which the national government regards disaster risk reduction.

The government has realigned the roles and responsibilities of different line ministries with the aim of providing a more holistic approach to disaster risk management. This means better linking disaster risk management with climate change adaptation and socioeconomic development processes. The government also signed the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, committing to ensure that disaster management becomes a shared responsibility among central and local governments, line ministries and related civil society stakeholders. The National Medium-Term Development Plan (2015–2019) also emphasises the need to further incorporate disaster management into development planning.

Several development partners have also played important roles in assisting the Indonesian government’s disaster management efforts. In 2012, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) established a sub-regional office in Jakarta to jointly provide funds to train first responders, while supporting community-based programs to raise disaster awareness. Since the establishment of the sub-regional office, USAID and OFDA have participated in four disaster response efforts and provided funding to many disaster risk reduction projects.

But despite Indonesia’s propensity for natural hazards, the post-earthquake rescue and relief efforts have been slow and disappointing. Hundreds of tourists were trapped on a volcano in Lombok and many others were caught in landslides on Mount Rinjani. Even more remained stranded in hotels, which were filled to capacity. Many survivors were treated outdoors because hospitals were damaged in the earthquake, while night time search and rescue efforts were hampered by electricity and communications blackouts. Damaged roads and a lack of heavy machinery hindered rescue and response immediately after the disaster.

The lack of machinery implies that the Indonesian authorities remain unprepared for earthquakes. Four agencies were involved in rescue and relief operations, including the police, the military, government agencies and domestic volunteers. Because of a lack of equipment to clear damaged roads, the BNPB deployed a limited number of helicopters to evacuate foreign and Indonesian tourists and to distribute emergency aid. But local rescue teams were delayed in reaching many of the worst affected areas in north Lombok. Three ships did evacuate 1000 tourists within a week of the event, but evacuation was hampered in the Gili Islands due to the limited number of ships available.

The government’s slow response might also be explained by the BNPB’s surprising declaration that it had not appealed for international assistance because the earthquakes did not constitute a national emergency. The agency claims that Indonesia has sufficient resources and substantial experience in handling natural disasters, and that the country is proud that it has not declared a national disaster since the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004.

The BNPB’s declaration reflects a nationalistic tone, but not an ability to handle a post-disaster situation in a timely and efficient manner. At the very least, Indonesia should seek emergency assistance from neighbouring ASEAN countries to reduce the suffering of the earthquake survivors.

Bimal Paul is Director of the South Asia Center at Kansas State University.

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