Medan, Indonesia – When a fatal tsunami last month battered the coastlines of the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra during a long holiday weekend days before Christmas, many on the shore could do little more than try to flee the surging waves on foot.
“What struck me … was how exposed people were,” Rosemarie North, Asia Pacific communications manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told Al Jazeera.
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“They live close to the sea along the coastline, which no doubt had been a beautiful and relaxing place for locals and tourists alike. When the tsunami came, they ran, if they could.”
North visited Java’s Banten province as part of the IFRC’s response to the humanitarian crisis caused by metres-high waves smashing into coastal settlements and popular resorts along Indonesia’s Sunda Strait on the evening of December 22. The tsunami is thought to have been caused by an eruption and subsequent landslide of the nearby volcanic island of Anak Krakatoa.
The wall of water that surged towards the shore killed more than 430 people and displaced some 30,000 others.
It was one of the most destructive disasters to hit Indonesia in 2018 – but it was hardly the first, or the worst, of its kind.
Just last year, 2,564 disasters killed thousands of people and displaced more than 10 million others across the country, a vast archipelago that sits of the Pacific Ring of Fire and is prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides and widespread flooding.
“In 2010, Indonesia had 84 active fault lines. But in 2017, a team of geologists found 295 active fault lines in the region,” Medi Herlianto, director of emergency facilities at Indonesia’s Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), told Al Jazeera.
Responding to one of the deadliest years on record, the Indonesian government announced in early January that it is doubling its disaster relief budget for 2019 to 15 trillion rupiahs ($1.06bn).
Nufransa Wira Sakti, a spokesperson for the finance ministry, said that five trillion rupiahs would be used for post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation, with another 10 trillion rupiahs earmarked for pre-disaster response.
The move was welcomed by some as a positive step, but others warned that more is needed to address the root cause of many of the problems faced by the country in dealing with an ongoing spate of natural disasters.
“We need to mitigate disasters, not just respond to them once they have happened,” said Herlianto. “For every $1 we invest on disaster mitigation, we need to spend around $40 on response.”
As such, he said, it would be much cheaper and safer for Indonesia to implement infrastructure such as early warning systems and evacuation plans, rather than just distributing aid once a disaster has devastated a local community.
North agreed. “The government put an early warning system in place after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, covering tsunami, flood, high tides, typhoon, and other hazards,” she said, referring to one of modern history’s worst natural disasters that killed more than 220,000 people, the vast majority of whom were in Indonesia.
“The system still needs significant improvement – this has been recently highlighted by the president of Indonesia – given the fact that the installed equipment is not proportional to a large number of critical points that need to be monitored in the country.”
Last week, at the first cabinet meeting for 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo addressed concerns about the country’s ability to respond to a crisis. “Given our disaster-prone geographic conditions, we must be prepared, responsive, alert and resilient in facing any natural disaster,” he said.
For Herlianto, a major issue is responsibility for disaster management at a district and city level lies with local authorities and not with the central government.
He said that “480 districts and cities around Indonesia have a local disaster management agency, but only 10 of these have a comprehensive disaster management plan in place”, adding that BNPB has been providing training nationwide but local disaster management agencies often fail to implement disaster preparedness plans properly.
Impact on tourism
There are also concerns that if Indonesia cannot demonstrate a comprehensive response to disasters, its vital tourism sector could take a hit.
In recent years, the government has rolled out its “10 New Balis” scheme in an attempt to boost tourist numbers by encouraging visitors to venture to other parts of the country – other than the popular resort island.
Stuart McDonald, cofounder of Travelfish.org, an independent travel guide to Southeast Asia, argued that there is an essential paradox between Indonesia’s tourism marketing and its disaster response.
“Indonesia uses its volcano-dotted position on the Ring of Fire heavily in its tourism promotions. But when it comes to doing the hard yards investing in safety to make these activities actually relatively safe, for both domestic and foreign tourists, Indonesia is found badly wanting,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It seems nobody has as much practice at responding to disasters as Indonesia, which makes the sometimes haphazard response all the more frustrating. Often post-disaster changes which could reduce the chance of future issues are not followed through.”
Financial and emotional toll
Against all this, local residents continue to live in fear.
“We can’t think about the future,” Andi Karim, a 32-year-old resident of Rajabasa village in Sumatra who saw his house partially destroyed when the tsunami hit, told Al Jazeera.
“We’ve no money and we’re traumatised. And we’re scared to be here on the coast at night. In the dark, we can’t see if another wave is coming.”
He is not alone in feeling this way.
During her time in Banten, North visited a local mosque on a hillside in Kampung Sirih which was being used as a shelter for around 300 tsunami-hit women and children, many of whom had experienced natural disasters before.
“I met a woman who’d had to take off about four years ago too, when a twister came through the coast and destroyed her shop. She and her three children are safe again this year, but the experience left her quite nervous,” said North.
“She had a sense another disaster would befall her.”