East Timor and the Lesser Sunda Islands, the south-eastern islands of Indonesia’s archipelago, witnessed a devastating series of floods and landslides following an early encounter with tropical cyclone Seroja that left over 200 dead and dozens still missing. The storm developed just south of the island nation of East Timor at 18:00 UTC on April 3rd. The still-developing cyclone then moved west to the Indonesian islands where it delivered up to half a meter of rainfall (20 inches) over a 2-day period in areas like East Nusa Tenggara Province. At 20:00 UTC on April 4th, the storm was declared a Category 1 Tropical Cyclone as it began its southern migration away from the Indonesian archipelago and towards Australia’s West Coast.
While exact casualties have yet to be officially reported, it is estimated that over 150 Indonesians and over 30 East Timorese are reported dead. Several dozen individuals are missing as search efforts continue. Weather conditions are improving, but rescue efforts continue to be challenging as mud, turbulent waters, and debris make it difficult to access the flooded areas, reports BBC. The flooding and landslides have also destroyed thousands of homes, leaving citizens displaced and homeless. According to Al Jazeera, Indonesian officials have stated that they are attempting to provide immediate shelter for those in need, while also being cognizant of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The AFP reports that around 20,000 people have been evacuated from affected areas, as 4,000 military personnel have rushed to the area with food and water supplies.
While tropical storms are common in the area, Deutsche Welle reports that the intensity of flooding may be due to large-scale deforestation in the area. Environmental watchdog groups like Greenpeace argue that palm oil production (of which Pakistan and the U.S. make up the largest importers) is a primary cause of deforestation in the area. While there is no uniform consensus surrounding forests’ ability to prevent flooding, the question has gained the attention of climate scientists. For example, a 2018 article published in Global Environmental Change, provides evidence that “forest cover tends to reduce the extent of flood damage and hence has the ability to protect human lives and properties during flood events.” Therefore, it ought to be asked whether this catastrophe could have been mitigated with stricter agricultural policies. Hershey’s, Nestle, and Kelloggs are all buyers of palm oil, and have been criticized for purchasing from illegal palm oil farms.
Both the National Disaster Management Agency and the Indonesian Forum for Environment indicated that the flash flooding was worsened by deforestation. The former also issued a warning that as many as 125 million Indonesians live in areas that are increasingly at risk of future storms. The combination of worsening natural disasters due to climate change and the continued deforestation of Indonesian lands will continue to put more lives and properties at risk of flooding. As Amitav Ghosh writes in his popular nonfiction work The Great Derangement: “To think of [natural disasters] in terms of chance and coincidence seem[s] only to impoverish the experience.” Rather than view this disaster as an unfortunate, isolated event, it may be more accurate to recognize it as a consequence of collective human actions. As such, any solution will necessarily be a collective one.
As the death toll from tropical cyclone Seroja is fresh on our minds, it is a most appropriate time to take action against the actors who contribute most to climate change. Beyond checking for palm oil on the ingredients of our favorite foods, one can also contact local legislators and voice their outrage at the irresponsible and careless activities of corporations who contribute to deforestation on a massive scale.