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July 13, 2014

Earthquake Doesn't Kill People, But...

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Indonesia lies at the Pacific 'Ring of Fire' - the line-up of active tectonic plates
which cause frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions
The photo is taken from here

I wrote this article in early October 2009, intended to be published by an Indonesian newspaper, two days after Padang was again hit by a major earthquake. I intended to respond to another opinion that was published earlier in that newspaper, that talked about disaster as part of destiny and merely criticized the slow response from the government. Back in those days disaster risk reduction concept was still quite unpopular, even though traditional houses in Sumatra had embraced earthquake-resistant designs and the Disaster Management Law had been enacted. I would like to introduce the idea that we can actually minimize the risks, and secure the lives and the properties from the hazards, which could have protected the lives and properties before the disaster happened.

After a series of earthquakes along the southern coast of Java in the last two months, last week Indonesia was again stricken by a major earthquake, affecting the people of Padang, claiming hundreds of lives and damages worth billions of rupiah. In this gloomy moment of the post-disaster phase, one question that always comes up is, “Why do disasters often bring such destruction in this country?”

Most of the people in Indonesia would say that the disaster is solely a matter of destiny. However, despite such belief that disaster is unavoidable, there is an alternative paradigm about disaster that is worth considering, which is called 'Disaster Risk Reduction'. The disaster risk reduction paradigm emphasizes reducing disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyze and manage the causal factors of disasters that aim to lessen the vulnerability of people and property and improve preparedness for adverse events.

Some might say that managing the causal factors of disasters sounds like a mission impossible. How come we manage something so unpredictable such as an earthquake? To answer that, it is worth to first revisit the notion of 'unpredictability' in the case of an earthquake.

It is true that in comparison to other natural hazards such as cyclones or volcanic eruptions, earthquakes are more unpredictable. However, communities residing in some parts of Sumatra, such as in Aceh, Bengkulu, Lampung, and West Sumatra, and those who live in the islands off the shore of Sumatra, such as Simeuleue, Nias, and Mentawai are familiar with the fact that several times in a year they would feel the earthquakes.

Along the western coast of Sumatra, there have been major earthquakes that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused enormous destruction. Aceh is recorded in the world’s history for the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2004. Added to the Liwa earthquake in 1994, Nias 2005, Bengkulu 2007, Simeuleue in 2005 and 2007, and Mentawai in 2005, 2007, and 2009, the occurrence of the hazard might not be able to be predicted accurately, yet it is prominent.

In disaster risk reduction, the disaster is seen as the “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources” (UNISDR, 2009). In the eyes of DRR, earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, and other phenomenons that are commonly categorized as “disasters” are viewed as “natural hazards”, which is understood as "natural processes or phenomena occurring in the biosphere that may constitute a damaging event" (UNISDR). Natural hazards may occur, but it does not necessarily create a disaster.

A simple explanation for this concept is, that if a major earthquake shook a place without causing casualties, damages, or disruption of public services - or in other words - the impact of the hazard is not disastrous, then the earthquake is not likely to be considered as a disaster. It was a different story when the earthquake hit Padang, where thousands of people lived in unsafe buildings and utilized public facilities that were not designed to withstand the shock. Most casualties and losses in earthquakes happened due to collapsed structures. That is why, a popular quote in disaster risk reduction says that “earthquake doesn't kill people, but buildings do”.

For too long, the disaster paradigm in Indonesia focused only on emergency responses. The amount of loss due to the catastrophes, added to funds needed for recovery and reconstruction of post-disaster sites double the costs that should be borne by the government and community. The efforts to mitigate and prevent the disaster and to reduce the risk seemed to be out of the attention even those can potentially save lives and reduce the loss significantly.

Ironically, this ignorance is somehow culturally unacceptable in Indonesia, as the popular narrative of the risk perceptions echoes a passive attitude towards disaster, that humans are powerless in the face of destiny, instead of believing that there are some parts of the destiny that a human can actually change. Sadly, the narrative of 'disaster is destiny and there is nothing we can do about it' is so much reinforced during the post-disaster phase like now. Soundbites in the news would display messages like, "This is destiny", or "This is God's trial", stated by government officials, lawmakers, and even survivors themselves.

The fact that people can actually live with risk without having to be the victims has been shown by Japan. Nearly 6,500 died in the 1995 Kobe earthquake, then Japan strongly reinforced the building code regulations and disaster management planning. Those significantly reduce the number of fatalities in the later year's earthquake. Indonesia can do the same. Introducing ideas that disaster losses can be reduced through sound building codes, better spatial planning, and educating community members on the ways to secure themselves could be some of the ways possible. 

Indonesia's cultural artifacts show that centuries ago, some traditional communities had implemented risk reduction measures. Traditional houses in Sumatra were built with constructions that could withstand tremors and floods. The old lullaby in Simeuleue taught the children that when a big earthquake happens and the seawater withdraws, they should soon run to the higher grounds. Seeing those examples, Indonesians should realize that disaster risk reduction is not at all an alien concept in their cultures.

Nevertheless, researchers also showed that emphasis on preparedness and mitigation activities are at an inherent disadvantage because those are protective measures that have a very long-term pay-off (Lindell and Perry, 2004). This is also the case in Indonesia. In April 2007 the Indonesian government enacted the Disaster Management Bill which sets up a legal and policy framework for the Indonesians to have an institutional arrangement, sufficient resource allocation for disaster risk, and a coherent disaster risk intelligence system, which should change the life and the perspectives of the government and the people of Indonesia. 

In some areas in Indonesia such as Aceh and Jogjakarta, local communities and organizations working for post-disaster recovery have also started disaster risk reduction efforts as part of the ways to ensure that communities living in those disaster-prone areas can live better, and safer lives. However, the implementation of disaster risk reduction projects has been challenged by a lack of awareness and political will, resulting in a lack of investment and budget for risk reduction activities. There are also worries, that with the conclusion of donors' funding to disaster risk reduction initiatives after some years of operations in Indonesia, communities and government will also stop their efforts. This should not happen.

Indonesia has experienced just too many disasters. Opportunities to further develop disaster risk reduction measures lie in the fact that risk reduction measures have their roots in Indonesia's traditional culture, and in the legal frameworks, which potentially instill risk reduction as a permanent part of Indonesia's way of living. It is the time for us to fully embrace those opportunities and translate them into actions. 

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