January 26, 2014 – Indonesian Volcano Drives Refugee Crisis: Months of eruptions from a mountain in Sumatra displace tens of thousands and cause millions of dollars in damage: Pictured above, villagers ran on ash as The Mount Sinabung Volcano erupted in Indonesia‘s North Sumatra province Tuesday.
The world’s most volcanic nation is enduring one of its longest series of eruptions in more than 30 years, forcing Indonesian authorities to grapple with a growing refugee crisis on Sumatra Island.
Over the past three months, daily eruptions from Mount Sinabung, a massif in Indonesia’s far west, have displaced nearly 30,000 residents and caused millions of dollars in damage.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono flew to the region on Thursday, meeting with evacuees and disaster-mitigation officials.
A handful of villages are being permanently relocated and the evacuation zone stretches between 3.1 and 4.3 miles down the mountain. Officials have a contingency plan to extend it to around 6 miles if activity worsens, which would raise the number of evacuees to almost 60,000 people. There is no telling when the eruptions will end.
That is challenging the ability of a remote district to handle a crisis, even with the support of the central government’s well-oiled disaster-response mechanisms. Since the eruptions began, ash has caused more than $60 million in damage to cash crops including coffee, chilies, rice, corn and cabbage, according to the district’s agricultural agency.
Jhonson Tarigan, a district spokesman, said the local government depends heavily on aid donations from companies, government institutions and individuals.
“Supplies are sufficient, but we’re worried they may not be enough as the numbers of displaced people keeps rising,” he said.
Government volcanologists at a new monitoring post say they are prepared to increase the size of the evacuation zone, but are wary of speaking of worst-case scenarios.
“The danger is if the lava dome continues to grow, potentially adding energy to the pyroclastic flows” and sending them further, said Kristianto, a government volcanologist who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name. Pyroclastic flows are superheated mixes of ash and gases that can barrel down the mountain at high speeds, torching everything in their path.
In 2010, during eruptions of Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, much stronger pyroclastic flows required a clear zone of 12 miles around the peak, forcing the evacuation of more than 300,000 people.
The displaced around Sinabung are mainly small landholders who farm the fertile volcanic soils below the roughly 8,200-foot peak. Many have sold their livestock and are relying on government assistance.
The evacuees are housed and fed in mosques, churches and wedding halls in various degrees of comfort. In the largest mosque in Kabanjahe, the district seat, one group of more than 600 villagers has slept on floor mats since early November. They bathe every few days.
With nearly 130 active peaks, Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a collection of tectonic fault lines that makes seismic activity a daily occurrence.
No one precisely knows Sinabung’s capabilities. Scientists have been studying the mountain in earnest only since 2010, when it briefly erupted for the first time in centuries. That gave volcanologists time to set up seismic-monitoring tools and to study 2,000 years of volcanic deposits, all of which is informing current evacuation maps.
Since November, the mountain has been spewing gray ash as much as four miles into the sky. The spread of fine dust has coated the landscape and ash has traveled 35 miles to Medan, home to more than two million people.
Increasingly, the eruptions are accompanied by the more dangerous pyroclastic flows, the longest of which have extended about three miles down the mountain.
Locals gather nightly at a field in Kabanjahe, about seven miles away, to watch occasional bursts of lava, which has thus far stayed largely at the upper reaches of the mountain.
For all the devastation and displacement, the crisis is a telling picture of just how far Indonesia’s disaster-relief operations have come in recent years, especially since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, when some 160,000 people perished in Indonesia alone. The event was instrumental in establishing a national disaster-mitigation agency and refining the relationship between local and national response bodies.
“Before that, disaster management here was just emergency response,” said Said Faisal, executive director of AHA Centre, a coordinating body for disaster management among Southeast Asian countries. “Today, you can get a Ph.D. in disaster management.”
Part of the challenge in Indonesia, a sprawling country of 18,000 islands and more than 240 million people, is that disasters can strike in unison. In the past week, heavy rains have forced more than 40,000 people from their homes in the capital, Jakarta, and 15,000 more in the eastern island of Sulawesi.
For evacuees, life is a mix of boredom and concern.
“It’s all ruined,” said Rina Sitepo, describing the finger-deep ash covering her coffee, cabbage and chili crops. Sitting with her sisters-in-law on the floor of the mosque serving as an evacuation center, she rolled a lightly intoxicating mix of betel nut and tobacco. Her intake has risen exponentially in the past three months.
“It helps us forget for a while,” she said. (Credits – Reuters, Made Sentana and The Wall Street Journal).
The Master of Disaster