On Friday, September 28 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The earthquake created a tsunami with a wall of water reaching as high as 6 meters. Currently, the reported death toll stands at 832 but is expected to rise dramatically, as the full extent of the aftermath of this disaster is not fully known yet. Rescue teams are still attempting to reach the most heavily affected areas. As of now, the highest death toll numbers are recorded in Palu, the capital of the province in Central Sulawesi. Survivors, whose homes were destroyed, with limited access to water and food, are looting badly damaged Palu’s malls and markets. A shortage of food and water is attributed to the difficulties that rescue teams are having in reaching survivors. As the airport in Palu is able to accommodate only essential aircraft. Despite that, mass burials are being prepared for many victims in an attempt to mitigate the risks of disease spreading in the affected regions. A 14-day state of emergency has been declared in Sulawesi. The country has also confirmed that it will be accepting international aid assistance.
Indonesia Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, said, “Aceh’s government was paralyzed. The governor is still there [Palu], the regent is still there, is still running.” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesperson of Indonesia’s disaster agency, commented the situation, “We hope there will be international satellites crossing over Indonesia that can capture images and provide them to us so we can use the images to prepare humanitarian aid.” Nugroho also stated, “The casualties will keep increasing, [and] today we will start the mass burial of victims, to avoid the spread of disease.”
Indonesia is an archipelago that consists of more than 260 million inhabitants living across 17,000 islands. Infrastructure remains poor in many places, which makes many locations, within this vast archipelago, difficult to access even in ideal conditions. Natural disasters are not unusual in Indonesia, given its location inside a volcanic area called “the Ring of Fire.” In December 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake led to a massive tsunami that resulted in the deaths of 230,000 people across dozens of countries, with the majority of victims in Banda Aceh, capital of the Aceh province of Indonesia. Just last month, a powerful earthquake on Lombok island killed around 505 people.
This time, the tsunami warning issued by Indonesia’s Geophysics Agency was lifted 34 minutes after it was issued. Badan Meteorologi, Klimatologi, dan Geofisika (BMKG) has faced criticism for their inadequate warning to the public. Rahmat Triyono, head of the Earthquake and Tsunami Center at BMKG said, “We have no observation data at Palu. So we had to use the data we had and make a call based on that.” After the tsunami in December 2004, there had been plans to install early tsunami warning systems. However, because of the intergovernmental disagreements, the project remained incomplete. For a country that is very vulnerable to natural disasters, a lack of a warning system and infrastructure to mitigate the effects of natural disasters is very problematic and disappointing. Not enough development has occurred even with the continued toll of natural disasters in Indonesia, including the very high death toll of the 2004 tsunami. The slow speed with which the government of Indonesia is acknowledging the extent of the disaster is also a major disappointment. It is important to establish a cohesive and well-organized response to this catastrophe. Precautions and preparations must be made in order to effectively mitigate and respond to future natural disasters.
The tsunami that has hit the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia represents an unfortunate failure of Indonesia’s government to protect and assist its people from natural disasters that are quite common in a geographically vulnerable country. Weak responses to tsunamis, earthquakes and their lingering aftermath can further weaken the trust that the population has for its government. A strong approach towards the problem of natural disasters is necessary from the Indonesian government.