Socialist Worker

Indonesian tsunami—an avoidable tragedy

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2624

Cuts to the early warning system meant many people died as a result of the devastation

Cuts to the early warning system meant many people died as a result of the devastation

A tsunami early warning system that could have saved many lives in Indonesia had not been introduced because of lack of money.

A 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit the country last Friday. Hundreds died in the cities of Palu and Donggala and the final death toll is expected to be in the thousands.

Survivors have been left to fend for themselves as supplies of medicine, food and water run low.

On Monday people blocked trucks carrying food supplies in western Palu.

Some are looting shops. One man in Palu said, “There has been no aid. We need to eat. We don’t have any other choice.”

But many of the deaths were preventable.

The warning system was supposed to be introduced following an earthquake and tsunami in 2004 that killed 230,000 people. Fourteen years later it is still just a prototype.

The new system would more accurately detect the threat of giant waves.

If operational, it could warn of a threat within one to three minutes of a tsunami occurring. This compares with the current system that gives a warning somewhere between five and 45 minutes after the waves start building.

The agencies involved with the project have suffered budget cuts. Indonesia’s ministry of finance was still delaying funding to buy and lay undersea cables last year. It finally approved funding in July.

But at a meeting last month, the three major agencies involved failed to reach any agreement on their responsibilities. Disaster management expert Louise Comfort, who has been involved in developing the system, said the project was “simply put on hold”.

The meteorology and geophysics agency issued a tsunami alert when the earthquake hit just after 6pm last Friday. It cancelled the warning at 6.36pm based on data from the closest tidal sensor, which is around 125 miles from Palu.


Rahmat Triyono from the agency said, “We have no observation data at Palu. So we had to use the data we had and make a call based on that.”

“This is the data the tsunami detection system could provide,” she added. Current systems for detecting and warning of tsunamis have failed miserably. A network of 22 buoys are connected to seafloor sensors that give advance warning of a tsunami.

But an earthquake off Sumatra island in 2016 showed that none of them were working.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho from the national disaster mitigation agency said the buoys haven’t worked since 2012 due to lack of funding. “If we look at the funding, it has decreased every year,” he said.

Indonesia also has sirens in around 55 places—but they didn’t work this time because of power cuts.

Rescuers struggled to reach victims trapped inside collapsed ­buildings because of a shortage of heavy equipment.

Indonesia’s workers and poor are hit by the demands of international bankers for cutbacks and the power of the local rich.

The four richest ­individuals in the country have a combined wealth greater than the poorest 100 million people.

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