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The Sumatra Tsunami – Why Wasn’t Indonesia Ready?

By: Duncan Graham

Why wasn’t Indonesia better prepared for the tsunami that hit the Mentawai Islands?

It’s not as though the 7.5 scale earthquake and three-meter wave came as a total surprise. The west coast of Sumatra has long been known as one of the world’s most unstable zones where the tectonic plates kilometers below the earth slip and slide creating chaos on the surface. It was hit badly in 2004 and again in 2005.

With this experience it’s extraordinary that the Indonesian government hadn’t got a system in place ready to cope with tragedy.

Yes, the islands are remote. That’s not an excuse – they’ve always been remote.

Yes, the villages are poor and don’t have infrastructure like airports and emergency centers. Why not? Quite simply, power has long been centralized in Jakarta; as the kilometers from the capital increase, so the cash available for public services shrinks.

The nation’s administration was decentralized following the fall of military dictator Soeharto in 1998. However in reality few provinces have had the courage or ability to run their regions without support or approval from the capital.

The other excuse for the bloated and malfunctioning bureaucracy has been the mantra that Indonesia is a poor and developing nation. Both claims are rubbish. The country is rich in minerals, oil and gas but the wealth has not been distributed evenly. Much has been plundered for personal gain by officials and Soeharto cronies.

Indonesia ranks 111 on Transparency International’s list of corrupt countries, alongside Egypt. NZ is ranked top, along with Singapore and Denmark, as the least corrupt.

The government collects only a third of the taxes it’s legally entitled to gather. This year Gayus Tambunan, a low-ranking tax official, was found to have amassed more than US$3 million from bribes.

The rot continues in the Parliament. This year it planned to deal with 80 pieces of legislation, but has addressed only seven.

Indonesia’s Constitution includes the Pancasila (five principles) philosophy. Number Five upholds social justice for all Indonesians. It does not state these rights are just for city folk.

When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the tsunami site he questioned why people had been living in low-lying areas, though they’ve been there for generations. Planning regulations could have prohibited surfline settlement – but rules are easy to by-pass.

After the 2004 tsunami aid from Germany was used to install early warning systems. Sadly many have been dismantled for their saleable parts by fishermen, or have fallen into disrepair.

This has been known for some time, but never fixed.

New Zealand was the first outside country to offer aid to the people of the Mentawai Islands whose homes and families had been destroyed by the tsunami.

The early reports came from Westerners working with Surfaid – an international NGO established by Kiwi Dr Dave Jenkins. Back in 1999 he’d been working in Singapore and took a trip to the Mentawai for a surfing holiday.

He was shocked at the contrast between life on his luxury yacht and the sick and poor villagers who were suffering and dying from preventable diseases, like malaria.

He decided to do something and in the past 11 years has helped raise millions to help improve the health of the islanders. The Indonesian government has now appointed Surfaid as the lead NGO handling the emergency.

I’ve just come back from Nias Island, just to the north of the Mentawai where I’ve seen the results of the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 earthquake.

After these events the government, supported by aid from overseas worked to rehabilitate the island. The bill was US$ 1 billion.

The repairs have been piecemeal. The main north-south road is in good condition but the roads inland are like rocky riverbeds, and almost impassable.

An ambulance I was travelling in as a passenger, not a patient, was unable to reach homes on the outskirts of Gunungsitoli – the provincial capital that sits on the coast and is vulnerable to any tsunami.

Many homes have still not been repaired, though the administration has built a splendid set of offices on a hill, safe from big waves.

In the meantime money from overseas is being used to teach the public – particularly children – about ways they can prepare for natural disasters and what they should do when the earth shakes and the tides rush in.

The agency doing this job is not the government but a unit of Yakkum, an NGO based in Yogyakarta and originally set up by a New Zealand community worker, the late Colin McLennan.

Like Dr Dave Jenkins he was shocked at the sight of sick and poor people who were not being given proper care by the government.

He helped raise millions of dollars and Yakkum, which now operates in Bali, Central Java and Nias, helps thousands of handicapped people recover their lives and become useful members of society.

Indonesians are grateful – but are starting to ask why such responsibilities aren’t handled by the Indonesian government, caring for its own citizens…

(First published in Scoop (NZ) 1 November 2010)

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