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Lesson from nature YOGYAKARTA - The frantic effort to save thousands of lives from an imminent eruption of Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta may reflect the best disaster management so far in Indonesia since the December 2004 tsunami caused the deaths of more than 130,000 people in Aceh and Nias.

The evacuation of people living on the slopes and at the foot of the country's most active volcano is under way, so are safety drills for schoolchildren in surrounding areas in anticipation of an earthquake or eruption. Merapi's biggest eruption took place in 1930, killing over 1,000 people, but the most recent major disaster occurred in 1994 when hot, pyroclastic ash burnt alive more than 70 people.

All the measures being prepared to spare thousands of villagers from the volcano's wrath have been made possible to some extent by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's instructions. This unfortunately was not the case when floodwaters swept the East Java town of Trenggalek and killed at least 19 people last week or when flash floods and landslides buried alive scores of villagers in the neighboring town of Jember and the Central Java town of Banjarnegara four months earlier.

The catastrophes only underline that Indonesia is destined, or cursed according to cynics, to live with natural disasters. The archipelagic country lies in the Pacific ring of fire, where active volcanoes stand and erupt or spew ash almost every year. The fact that Indonesia straddles three of the world's biggest tectonic plates, that is, the Eurasian Continental, the India-Australian and Pacific Oceanic plates also makes it vulnerable to earthquakes. Seasonal disasters in the form of floods and forest fires add to our woes.

In most cases, however, the human factor has made the natural disasters difficult to prevent, let alone manage. Environmental destruction is found almost everywhere in the country, precipitating the manmade disasters.

Greenpeace data reveals that Indonesia has lost 70 percent of its forest area over the past two decades, mostly due to forest concessions, illegal logging and forestry policies that fail to protect the forests. A related study conducted by online publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that Indonesia was one of the world's hot spots of species extinction as a result of their diminishing habitat. The report said around 1,000 generic flora and fauna species in the country would soon vanish.

There were earlier studies concerning the country's continuing deforestation and natural destruction, but we seem to ignore them. Policy makers in the government and the House of Representatives have justified their decision to compromise natural preservation behind cliche arguments of legal certainty and revenue generation. One of the most controversial issues that confirmed the lack of vision on environmental issues among the political elite was the House approval in 2003 of a government-sponsored bill that allows mining companies to operate in protected forests, which runs counter to the Forestry Law.

Such a dilemma between revenue and the environment is a common problem facing developing countries, with many of them choosing the pragmatic approach, although in the long term revenue from the exploitation of natural resources will be peanuts compared to the loss of land and species, human lives and cultures. The communities who have lived on Mt. Merapi for generations know much about the potential hazards of their environment and how to read the natural signs prior to a disaster. So do islanders who know when to run for safety before big tidal waves strike.

All that those modest people do is to maintain a harmonious relationship between themselves and nature through rituals or environmental conservation practices. In Merapi's case, local people ban the burning off of land or hunting of animals that often send signals of an imminent eruption to help preserve the environment. Disasters may be unavoidable or difficult to predict, but can be mitigated by befriending the environment.

A view on the smoking Gunung Merapi. This picture is made from Dukun/Srumbung district in the Magelang area. From here, the volcano is located towards the east.
A view on the smoking Gunung Merapi. This picture is made from Dukun/Srumbung district in the Magelang area. From here, the volcano is located towards the east.




Posted in Volcanoes @ 26 April 2006 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink






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