Indonesia's journey towards robust disaster management

Image credit: Joko Widodo (Creative Commons: Twitter)

The dust has begun to settle over two consecutive geological disasters in Indonesia. First a series of earthquakes on the island of Lombok in August, followed by an earthquake-triggered tsunami off the coast of Central Sulawesi less than two months later. Both incurred significant death tolls, displacement, structural damage and economic disruption. Unfortunately, comparable mass causality events are bound to reoccur. Yet, while natural disasters are inevitable, the means by which governments and societies manage risk and prepare for disasters is context-dependent.

The efficacy of the government-led emergency response in Indonesia is typically observed with mixed judgment. To take the example of Sulawesi, on 28 September, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck Donggala district, resulting in a 1.5-metre tsunami and widespread soil liquefaction across the provincial capital Palu and surrounding areas. Search and rescue efforts were deployed immediately alongside rapid impact assessment teams, mobile health centres and WASH units.

In the post-disaster period, calls for basic supplies were met by a multipronged supply-chain operation, with support from national and partner militaries. As logical challenges were overcome, access improved and aid could be gradually delivered to remote areas. As of mid-October, there were 112 humanitarian actors partnering with the National Board for Disaster Management (BNBP), the lead body coordinating natural disasters in Indonesia.

At the same time, the BNBP-led response has been criticised for being slow, unprepared and incapable. With a major humanitarian situation and acute infrastructure damage, basic supplies and shelter cannot come fast enough. Unfortunately, outlying areas were left without communication and aid delivery longer than they should have.

One must be careful when commenting on Indonesia’s emergency response. Indonesia has a disaster-risk profile considerably greater than equivalent developing states. Geography is a constant challenge, with a dispersed population straddling the world’s largest archipelago. Major tectonic fault lines mean it is also one of the world’s most significant geological hotspots. According to one report, Indonesia has averaged 290 significant natural disasters annually since 1988. The widespread risk areas across Indonesia pose a major challenge for national disaster readiness: there are many areas where natural disasters can strike.

Although there were shortcomings, Indonesia has been able to mount a significant response effort and avoid a humanitarian emergency.

Indeed, disaster regularity has forced Indonesia to enhance its disaster management systems. The most significant event in recent history was the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami affecting coastlines across the Indian Ocean, killing 167,000 people in Aceh and Nias and affecting over half a million. The success of the Agency for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (BRR) at the time drove the government to legislate an embedded cross-ministerial agency with country-wide authority in 2007. As a result, for a state with significant governmental challenges - including extensive nepotism and rent-seeking behaviour, a cumbersome bureaucracy and fragmented decision-making – Indonesia has an underlying natural disaster response capability that is considerably stronger and more comprehensive than one might expect.

On the other hand, there are clearly gaps in the risk reduction and preparedness components that were exposed in the Palu case. The lack of technical capacity and financial investment is most clearly illustrated by revelations that local sensory buoys were offline at the time of the tsunami, due to insufficient funding, malfunction and criminal activity. Timely access to information is critical for mitigating damage and reducing death tolls. The early warning systems built to detect and initiate the response to such events failed and precluded any attempt at an evacuation. Further, the tsunami warning was actually lifted with no apparent connection to geological data. The murkiness of sound public policy and program management in Indonesia has been starkly realised here.

There was also an absence of clearly articulated and implemented emergency management and communication plans, supported by community education. In the event of a timely warning, would residents have been able to respond effectively? Readiness for a natural disaster is more than a technical problem.

It is not new to suggest frontloading investment towards preparedness and mitigation strategies vis-à-vis response would help reduce the toll of disasters. Nonetheless, this sentiment needs to be reinforced and implemented at all levels: well-resourced, evidence-based and systematically implemented disaster risk reduction measures are paramount, at both a government and whole-of-society-level. Long term investment in local training and drills, hazard mapping and environmental design implementation, and financial commitment to comprehensive early warning systems would be a good start.

It is easy to roll out a cautionary tale about the peril of ignoring the preventative side of the disaster management spectrum. But it is negligent to ignore the lessons gleaned. Given the certainty of catastrophic events in the future, it is important for the BNBP to understand and build on the learnings of the two consequent disasters with improved rigour. This is an opportunity for Indonesia to reflect and act as it did post-2004.

Mason Littlejohn is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.