High waves have hit coastal areas across java, Sumatra and Bali, devastating hundreds of houses, expelling tourists from beaches, and preventing fishermen from going down to the sea.
At least one person has been killed in Padang in Sumatra.
This area is where Indonesia has started to install it’s first locally made tsunami warning buoy in the Indian Ocean.
But many are questioning whether it can help to save lives?
Peter Koppen and Sutami visited Padang, Sumatra to see how far preparations have gone….
Pristine beaches, inviting turquoise water, a slight breeze caressing the sunlit leaves of palm trees – nothing makes you feel that this coastal paradise near Padang on the island of Sumatra could change into a catastrophe within minutes.
However, in December 2004 more than 160.000 people were killed in the nothern tip of Sumatra when a huge tsunami hit the island – abruptly changing a cheerful atmosphere into one of horror.
This scenario can happen every day, every minute in Indonesia – and the source might just be a couple of hundered kilometers off the shore.
“Indonesia is located in the earthquake prone area because the plate collisions generate earthquakes, and most of the earthquakes are located in the sea where they generate tsunami.
…explains Fauzi, Head of the Earthquake Engineering and Tsunmai Division at the Meteorological and Geophysical Agency in Jakarta.
“A local tsunami is very fast. Only 15 to 30 minutes after the earthquake. Local tsunami means very close, very close to the earthquake, the distance about 200-300 km away.
20, 30, maybe 40 minutes to run for shelter. Time to save your life.
But without an early warning released immediately after the earthquake many people wouldn’t even realise that they were in great danger. Sometimes people don’t feel the earthquake and are surprised when the waves come. As Harald Spahn, Head of the German Agency for Technical Support GTZ explains, time is very short to run away.
“…if you feel an earthquake, you are not sure if it was in the sea or on land…if you feel the ground shaking, you are not sure how strong it is because you don’t know how close you are to the epicentre. But we think an earthquake is a very good indicator, so if you live at the coast and you feel a strong earthquake, then you better go away from the shore.
Experts like Spahn are working on a tsunami early warning system to anticipate an event like the 2004 Asian tsunami.
When the earth trembled under the sea that day in December, the data reached Western observatory stations minutes later, before the first tsunami waves had washed up onto the shores of Sumatra.
Terrifyingly there was NO way to pass the warning on to those in danger in time.
But now international organisations are cooperating with the Indonesian government to install an integrated pre-tsunami warning system.
It brings together observation networks with marine measuring processes and satellite observation.
A couple of tsunami warning buoys have already been installed off the Indonesian coast to help alert coastal communities to future killer waves.
The effectiveness of the high-tech installations have yet to be tested though, says Andang Bachtiar, a geologist and Chairman of the Exploration Think Tank Indonesia, ETTI.
“… It’s a billion of rupiah spend over there just to show the people and the world we are doing something. But in term of scientific things it’s ridiculous … without building inherent awareness in the social community, all those technology is just garbage, just nothing….It’s billions of rupiah. I don’t know should have been spend for other things that are very important: Campaigning, going into the grassroots, building social awareness rather than building high tech many scientists are sceptical about.
Experts agree that capacity building in local communities is needed beforehand.
Patra Rina Dewi is from Kogami, a local NGO in Padang-City in West-Sumatra.
They are working on tools to warn people of a tsunami. A siren network is one option, radio communication or sms-messages another.
As soon as the warning has been sent out, people ought to run for shelter. But here lies a huge problem, says Patra.
“In certain areas it is very difficult for the people to evacuate because there is lack of infrastructure for earthquake like bridge or road for evacuation. If all the people in Padang know how to evacuate we predict that 60.000 people cannot survive because of the infrastructure problem.
One of those 60.000 liable to be killed by a tsunami in the vicinity of Padang is 40 year old Ridwan. He’s been a fisherman in a nearby village for 25 years and believes there is no way of escaping fate.
“We don’t care about this tsunami issue. The most important thing is to go fishing and get some money, so we can stay alive. We submit our fate to God. Our destiny has been written. If we die because of a tsunami, there’s nothing else we can do. We are not afraid. Just take a look around, everybody here has his home on the beach.
Widaya has her home close to the beach, too. As they she talks to us, children gather around.
“I’m not afraid to live here, it feels normal. If a tsunami hits this place, I will just submit my fate to God. Big earthquakes rarely occur here, that’s why I’m not too worried about this. But of course we have to be on the alert. When we hear the sirens, we will run to higher grounds.
Without awareness building and proper evacuation methods any early warning system will fail in Indonesia, predicts Aim Zein who is the co-ordinator for the GTZ Tsunami Early Warning System in Padang.
“It is not only building or planning the streets and evacuation roads, but they also have to plan what next. If the people already there, how about the hygiene, how about the toilet, water, food supply. … So it’s not just: Ok, go up to the hills. Then what? Are they going to die there? Do they have food, water, electricity? So we have to think in a long run, but we also understand this is not going to be easy and will be done in an short period.
This long-term preparation, says Zein, is what will make the difference in the short time – 20, 30, maybe 40 minutes – between tectonic movements and a possible tsunami in the event of an earthquake. Perhaps even how many will make it just in time…