Adi Renaldi, Jakarta – Safety standards for school buildings in Indonesia should be prioritised after Monday's earthquake, experts have said, as more rescuers and volunteers were deployed on Wednesday to search for the dead and missing from an earthquake that killed at least 268 people.
Many of those killed in Monday's quake in West Java were children taking classes at schools and Islamic boarding schools in the region, according to Muhadjir Effendy, coordinating minister of human development and culture. A further 1,000 people were injured.
With many missing, some remote areas still unreachable and more than 1,000 people injured in the magnitude 5.6 quake, the death toll is likely to rise. Hospitals near the epicentre on the densely populated island are already overwhelmed, while patients hooked up to IV drips lay on stretchers and cots in tents set up outside, awaiting further treatment.
More than 12,000 army personnel were deployed on Wednesday to strengthen search efforts being carried out by more than 2,000 police, rescue workers and volunteers, said Suharyanto, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency chief.
Suharyanto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said aid was reaching thousands of people left homeless who fled to temporary shelters where supplies can be distributed only by foot over the rough terrain.
The disaster has highlighted a failure to ensure school buildings are sufficiently safe in a disaster, according to Widjojo Prakoso, a professor of engineering at the University of Indonesia.
"School buildings should get special attention because they are not only supposed to withstand earthquakes, but they should also act as a temporary shelter during disasters," he said.
As many as 142 school buildings were damaged, according to government data. More than 22,000 homes were also damaged, displacing almost 60,000 people. The quake on Monday was especially devastating because it struck on land at a relatively shallow depth.
The national disaster agency BNPB created guidelines for earthquake-proof housing but contractors often disregard them, according to Prakoso. "Contractors choose economic profit over safety," he said. "They want to build faster and cheaper."
According to construction service law, where failures are found, contractors' permits can be revoked.
In 2019, the Ministry of Education and Culture issued regulations to standardise school structures, but there is no regulation stating they must be strong enough to act as shelters in a disaster.
Estimates regarding the number of school buildings vulnerable to quakes vary. According to the education ministry, almost 53,000 schools are located in earthquake-prone regions. In 2019, the BNPB recorded that 75% of more than 200,000 school buildings across Indonesia were prone to earthquakes, with about 60 million students at risk.
Manlian Ronald Simanjuntak, a professor of civil engineering at Pelita Harapan University, Banten, said local government should study the data related to previous earthquakes over the past 10 years.
"So if we know the characteristics of the earthquake, we can respond to that by building robust and flexible structures that can absorb the ground vibration," he said.
The local government should make policies based on previous data to regulate school buildings, he added.
Abdul Muhari, head of communication at the BNPB, did not comment on why so many school buildings had been destroyed during Monday's quake but said the agency would focus on rebuilding structurally better facilities.
"We have coordinated with the ministry," Muhari told the Guardian. "We have also issued guidelines on how to prepare for disasters for students."
He referred to guidance published in May 2019 that was designed to improve disaster-preparedness in schools. The education ministry set up a taskforce that found about 27,000 schools had implemented the guidelines as of 2019.
According to the ministry, from 2009 to 2018 as many as 62,687 schools – and 12 million students – were affected by natural disasters.
Indonesia has a longstanding problem with poor building standards in earthquake-prone areas.
When a magnitude 7.5 earthquake and tsunami hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, in 2018, almost 3,000 school buildings were damaged. In January 2022, as many as 51 schools were damaged when a magnitude 6.6 quake hit Pandeglang, Banten, destroying more than 3,000 homes, though no casualties were reported.
In West Java, there are six active faults with the potential to trigger earthquakes. Activity at the Cimandiri fault was the cause of the magnitude 5.6 earthquake in Cianjur on Monday, according to the government geophysical agency.