In memory of 170,000 Indonesians. Or not.

December 26, 2004. During the Aceh tsunami, the sea just disappeared in parts of the Kei islands in Eastern Indonesia.

The day of the Asian tsunami. In the Kei islands in Eastern Indonesia, the sea just disappeared

In recent years, “mindfulness” has become something of a cult among harried executives. Well-paid life coaches add to their stress by urging them to “live in the moment”. But is living in the moment really such a great idea?

I’m guessing that Sutopo Nugroho, of Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), thinks it’s not. I could feel his frustration the day after the south Java earthquake of December 15, when he reported that 22 out of the 22 buoys installed around Indonesia to warn of tidal waves are not working. Or rather, they’re not working as disaster prevention devices — they still do pretty well as anchors to which fishermen sometimes tie up when they need a quick rest on the open seas. The buoys were put down after the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004. But the sophisticated sensory equipment (which cost taxpayers in Germany, Malaysia and the US around a quarter of a million dollars per unit) is not sending signals that could provide early warning of the sort of wave that killed 170,000 Indonesians during the Asian tsunami — the equipment hasn’t been properly maintained. That’s not entirely surprising; the devices are persnickety, and can cost up to US$50,000 a year to keep in working order. Shortly after they were installed in 2005, doom-mongers were already warning that Indonesians might not make the investment.

Bpk Sutopo, however, gave a deeper explanation for neglecting the early warning systems. Anticipating disasters is not part of Indonesian culture, he told reporters. He could have made an even more sweeping statement, something like: “Planning for the future isn’t really our thing.” He’d have plenty of evidence on his side: the government’s failure to invest the proceeds of a 20 year commodity boom productively so as to diversify the economy, for example, or the fact that whole cities are sliding ungracefully into the sea. (For evidence, see photos of sinking Semarang, once Java’s greatest port, or read the New York Times’s beautifully reported story on Jakarta, which is subsiding faster than any other major city on earth, for entirely predictable and largely preventable reasons.) But that begs the question, why is forward planning so, uuuh, thinly developed a cultural trait among Indonesians?

On the plus side, it may well be because the land is so consistently generous that forward planning is not all that necessary. For most of human history, volcanic ash and a tropical climate have combined to shower these islands with fertility. Add human ingenuity (terracing and irrigation) and industry (planting and harvesting), and you’ve got two and often three rice crops a year in many islands. Set those islands in seas teeming with protein, bless them with warm weather, and it becomes easy enough for many people to get by without having to worry too much about what happens when the food runs out or the cold sets in. It’s an unfashionable idea, but I’ve yet to meet a rural Indonesian who dismisses the bounty of the land as an underlying reason for contentedly hand-to-mouth habits.

On the minus side, many may fail to plan because there seems so little point in planning. The country is home to over 120 active volcanoes. I’ve been sitting on the floor in Halmahera eating supper and felt the ground shake under me. My companions  sighed “Gempah lagi” [another earthquake] and went right on eating as tin plates rattled off the kitchen shelf. Landslides are routine and mudslides common, and as for flooding… In one of the most geologically bubbly areas on earth, shit will happen. Most of it will happen big, and after all, we’re only little. Why spend time worrying about stuff you can’t do anything about?

That sort of resignation, known as pasrah, is intimately linked to the wider fatalism that comes with some types of religious beliefs. Most precisely, the type in which God strips humans of all agency. If all is predestined, then trying to plan for an alternative is worse than pointless, it’s positively wicked — an attempt to subvert the will of the deity. “It’s all in God’s hands” is also a convenient excuse if you just can’t be arsed to think ahead.

But anticipating disasters isn’t all about planning for the future, it’s also about learning from the past. Thirteen years ago today, I took the photo at the top of this post. I was in a small waterside hamlet in the Kei islands in Maluku, preparing to go for a walk with Bpk Lukas, a retired school teacher who had lived his whole life in village. Bpk Lukas was jittery; never in his long life had the sea disappeared as it did that day. Something awful must be afoot, he said. It wasn’t until I got back to Tual two days later that I discovered just how awful. The same sea that seemed to have been sucked out of Eastern Indonesia had been crashing over the islands 3,800 kilometres to the west, washing away the lives and loves of around 170,000 people. While I sympathise (in a takes-one-to-know-one kind of way) with a failure to plan for events that may not come to pass, I somehow feel that Indonesians owe it to those who died in 2004 to try a bit harder to stay ahead of the next wave.

8 Comments on "In memory of 170,000 Indonesians. Or not."

  1. I’m involved with someone from Sulawesi who set up a foundation to help the poor. But she has no money herself!

    • Exasperated Pseudoexpat | October 21, 2020 at 7:29 am |

      It is a sad fact in Indonesia that despite there are definitely many, empathetic and well-meaning people willing to help reducing the suffering of others, government isn’t exactly doing them any favor.

      If any poor souls from this country also happened to stumble upon your remark and itchy enough to give a reply, you could also expect them to justify that occurrence as “selfless act for a fellow humans” or something along those lines (tuh, banyak orang baik kan di Indonesia, walau miskin tetap saja membantu orang lain). All the while doing practically nothing to help these folks, and such remarks only serve as yet another example of that Indonesian habit in throwing out excuses to deflect uncomfortable discussion.

      People are also completely neglecting that something equivalent of near self-immolation (helping others while you’re not faring any much better) isn’t the same thing as a selfless act for humanitarian causes. It’s actually an evidence of a deeper problem often brushed off by the ruling elites because it’s a complex problem in need of solving, yet there’s no money in it to make anyone care enough.

  2. Elizabeth, I totally agree. We Indonesians need to be more forward planning when it comes to ectreme natural phenomena (they are only disasters when we allow them to be) – whether it’s the next wave or the next earthquake, or as we are facing now in Bali the next volcano. But some have learned their lesson. With the help of disaster mitigation experts villagers in volcano areas like Merapi have organized themselves in self reliant volunteer organizations and are well trained in how to evacuate their communities and how to survive as temporarily displaced persons. This gives me hope, especially seeing how generous and serious they were recently in training Balinese villagers who live on Mt Agung’s slopes. The government is another story.

  3. More than 4 decades ago, Mt Agung erupted with fatal results. In the eruption this year, technology and government services have helped to organize a large-scale response to avoid fatalities. It may fall short in some respects but Indonesia has come a long way in putting people out of harm’s way, at least in this case.

  4. “When the volcano starts erupting, that’s when we’ll go.” This was reportedly the response from a good many Balinese people living on the slopes of Mt Agung who didn’t want to leave their homes, their crops or their animals when the authorities came to tell them to evacuate on 22 September after there was an abrupt and dramatic increase in the volcano’s seismic activity. The sad reality is that in a big explosive eruption, there may not be time to get away, or escape routes might be blocked.

    Meanwhile, Balinese people in more urban areas like Ubud (32km away from the volcano as the crow flies) didn’t want to spend money on a mask to protect them from ash fall when they might never need one. They told me they’d buy one when there was ash.

    These wait-and-see attitudes astonished me but they’re exactly as you’ve described.

    As an individual wanting to help people prepare, I located the Bahasa Indonesia version of the IVHHN’s pamphlets on the health hazards of volcanic ash and preparing for volcanic ashfall*, printed them off, got loads of copies made, and distributed them to the many Balinese families in my orbit.

    I have a hunch that at least some of those people are waiting for a big eruption before they read the pamphlets…


  5. Christina Welty | December 28, 2017 at 12:01 am |

    good luck, Liz for thinking you can make a dent in the way Indonesian go forward. I have lived in these southern, parts for 20 years and another 30 years in Japan as a cross cultural specialist. Trying to change these laid back people (developed over centuries for precisely the reasons you describe) is like getting the Japanese and other northern hemisphere folks to smile, relax and enjoy life. There societies I refer to as ‘pickling’ were forced to use every moment just to survive with rice crops just once a year, so meats, fish and vegetables were all pickled for the long winter months…

  6. To be brutally honest 170,000 dead people are 0.06 of 1 percent of the Indonesian population. As a whole number it seems huge but put as a percentage its absolutely negligible. More people were murdered in Mexico alone last year. People die, it’s what we do best, so lets get on with living on our warm, comfortable islands in the sun here in Indonesia and worry about where the next cold beer is coming from.

  7. The buoys are not being used anymore as part of the Tsunami warning system, having been replaced by satellite technology, and actually the warning system is functioning quite well.

    From my piece in Daily Dot – “until the early 2000s, ocean buoys were by far the best technology for detecting the often minute deep-sea pressure changes signaling a tsunami. They’re also incredibly difficult to maintain. They are expensive, highly susceptible to vandalism in crowded waters, and require regular maintenance and technical expertise to operate. So they were replaced with a GPS shield using freely available satellite data and computer models able to detect sea level variations from space, with only tiny loss of time and accuracy as compared to buoys. Data from the shield is analyzed using sophisticated computer models at warning centers.”

Comments are closed.