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No more complacency

Jakarta Post Editorial - December 12, 2023

Jakarta – The Ring of Fire raged once again on Dec. 3 as Mount Marapi in West Sumatra erupted, spewing a tower of ash taller than the volcano itself into the sky without visible warning.

For locals, such events might be routine, as Marapi, the most active volcano in Sumatra, erupts every two to four years. But this time was a tragic departure from the typical; the eruption claimed the lives of 23 hikers who were on the volcano when it suddenly awoke.

We are sending our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, and we believe the authorities should be held accountable for the deaths. The hikers would have dropped their plans if the authorities had prohibited scaling the volcano, but in fact, officials continued to issue hiking permits despite warnings from vulcanologists.

At least 75 hikers were climbing Marapi the day of the disaster. They had been allowed to ascend as far as the volcano's peak, even though the Vulcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Center (PVMBG) had asked local authorities to stay away from the peak for their safety.

Before the deadly disaster, the volcano was at the second-highest alert level of the PVMBG's four-tiered system, a designation that was supposed to bar any activities within a 3 kilometer radius of the crater, as Marapi has a history of phreatic eruptions, ones that occur without advance signals.

The vulcanology center could only provide recommendations to the local Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), and it was up to its parent, the Environment and Forestry Ministry, and local offices to enforce it, the PVMBG's chief said recently.

Local officials in Marapi were not lacking in lessons. In 2017, 16 hikers were trapped on the volcano when it suddenly erupted. Fortunately, they were all evacuated safely, and this luck continued into the beginning of this year, when Marapi underwent several phreatic eruptions without any casualties.

Responding to the fatal disaster last week, PVMBG head Hendra Gunawan was furious, saying authorities "should've learned from the 2017 incident, but instead, they've let it happen again."

The BKSDA claimed it had issued hiking permits after getting the green light from local authorities, including the West Sumatra provincial administration, the Padang search and rescue agency and the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB). The BKSDA also said it had warned hikers to avoid the crater.

Later, the BKSDA's acting head, Dian Indriati, acknowledged to the media that the agency had taken factors other than safety into account in its issuance of the climbing permits, including "the positive impact on the local economy".

We appreciate tourism's importance for the well-being of people in the region, but material gain must not come at the cost of human lives.

Marapi's deadly eruption should serve as a wake-up call for the government not to leave volcano disaster mitigation up to mere luck. More than 200 million people are living along the Pacific Ring of Fire, with 5 million living next to active volcanoes that, like Marapi, can erupt anytime without any prior signs.

It is time for the authorities to prioritize lives over cash in the nation's volcano management. They can start by halting hiking permits for 18 dangerously active volcanoes that could erupt anytime.

Further, they should invest more in disaster mitigation, such as early warning systems and public education on evacuation procedures. The PVMBG claimed the alarm for Marapi had been stolen several times throughout the year, hindering the monitoring of the volcano.

It is, sadly, too late to save the lives of the deceased Dec. 3 hikers, but given the pervasiveness of volcanic activity in Indonesia, we can be assured that serious preparation now will save lives in the future. We cannot say we weren't warned.

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2023/12/12/no-more-complacency.htm