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Act now or many more will die

Jakarta Post Editorial - May 21, 2024

Jakarta – We are saddened by the flash floods and lahars (a mixture of water and volcanic rock fragments) that hit a number of regions surrounding Mount Marapi in West Sumatra on May 11, leaving more than 60 people dead and 14 others missing. Some natural disasters are unpredictable, but losses of life are preventable with well-prepared mitigation and alert systems.

Even hydrometeorological disasters such as flash floods, landslides and lahars, can be well anticipated to prevent material and immaterial losses, including casualties.

Coordinating Human Development and Culture Minister Muhadjir Effendy acknowledged that the recent West Sumatra catastrophe showcased the government's "stupidity". Muhadjir was referring to his ranks' indifference toward the natural disasters that had occurred repeatedly across the province since the beginning of this year.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) confirmed separately that the West Sumatra government has no early warning system in place for flash floods or lahars. Local authorities have so far relied on BMKG weather forecasts, which normally do not adequately explain to the public the extent of potential damage.

Indonesia, indeed, never seems to learn from past mistakes. Statistics show that predictable disasters like floods and landslides continue to claim many lives. According to National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) data, 22,435 people have been killed in 7,917 flood disasters and another 3,212 in 7,057 landslides since 2015.

Mitigation efforts and early warning systems for such hydrometeorological disasters is ever more important as these catastrophic events become more common, particularly amid the worsening climate crisis.

In fact, heavy rainfall that led to the Marapi lava flows was caused by a weather anomaly purportedly triggered by rising sea temperatures. Although Indonesia did not experience the intense heat wave that swept across South and Southeast Asia, the country's temperature did increase because of climate change and the El Nino climate phenomenon, among other things.

The recent calamity in West Sumatra is not a first. Local residents even have their own term to describe the flash floods that feature deposits of volcanic material from Marapi's eruption – galodo.

Another destructive galodo occurred in April 1979, destroying five villages in the regencies of Agam and Tanah Datar. It claimed 60 lives and left 19 missing. Similarly deadly volcanic mudflows occurred in 2009, 2010and 2017.

Despite experiencing a number of galodo, neither authorities nor local residents appeared to understand just how dangerous the events can be or what measures should be taken to escape from them and survive.

Shortly after the 1979 galodo, some affected villages were relocated but people kept returning to disaster-prone areas. On the other hand, various businesses, such as cafes, were also established in dangerous places, such as on cliff edges and riverbanks.

The newly built Xakapa cafe, situated on the riverbank across from the popular tourist destination Lembah Anai waterfall in Tanah Datar, was swept away during the May 11 flood. The disaster also wreaked havoc on some other eateries and entertainment venues nearby.

The monstrous, fatal calamity should serve as a wake-up call for the government to prepare a series of disaster mitigation efforts, such as identifying disaster-prone areas, relocating buildings to safe areas and implementing an end-to-end early warning system that informs residents about dangers as well as how and where to evacuate.

There is also an urgent need for routine evacuation drills for the local community to improve their readiness for flash floods and lahars. Nature conservation is equally crucial because disasters like floods and landslides are often caused by natural destruction such as illegal logging and massive land conversion.

Natural disasters are projected to become more frequent and catastrophic in the future as climate-related problems increase. Disaster-prone Indonesia must learn from past calamities to prevent fatalities. One death is too many, especially if it could have been prevented.

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2024/05/21/act-now-or-many-more-will-die.htm