Disastrous disaster management

Disastrous disaster management

08 December 2004
published by The Jakarta Post

It has become a matter of routine — which means something that does not attract serious attention — for Indonesia to face major disasters, bothnatural and man-made ones, as if the number of fatalities or material loses incurred during the devastation are only a matter of statistics. In thecase of the Blitar floods last week, the government again repeated the predictable conclusion it comes to every time there are floods; that”illegal loggers” were responsible for the catastrophe that has affected thousands of villagers in East Java.

The government for years, however, has never worked hard to curb the cause of this erosion; the illegal logging. Most of the floods are theconsequence of human greed — the acted-on desire to exploit the country’s natural resources for private gain. It is true that we often cannot do muchto stop natural disasters like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. But we can prevent fatalities or minimize the death toll in such accidents byrelying on technological early warning systems.

The media regularly reports floods and landslides and the spread of infectious diseases during the rainy season, which usually lasts about fourmonths until February. For the media and the public, the death toll from such incidents often receives this kind of reaction: “The dead are only 15– last year the number was three times higher.”

In the dry season, meanwhile, people discuss the impact of severe droughts. Forest fires in Sumatra during the dry season not only destroy and pollutenatural resources in this country, they also threaten the air quality of our neighbors — Singapore and Malaysia. However, people who live in Javaare less likely to care about the reoccurring destruction because they live far from the hot-spots.

These fire spots were often formerly important water catchment areas. In the least they contribute to global warming, which is changing weatherpatterns in the region. The consequence: Farmers ask for government help because they cannot harvest their crops after a drought. But who reallycares about the farmers’ fortunes? Water shortages are widespread during the dry season, but this is often regarded merely as a natural occurrence.

The same thing happens with natural disasters or traffic accidents that claim people’s lives. Even the government’s solution, which is often quitesimple — pay the medical bills for the victims — often ends up as an empty promise.

In disasters, the government or the parties responsible for the fatalities think that financial compensation is more than enough to make up for thesuffering of the victims and their bereaved families. Look at the government’s way of dealing with the earthquake victims in East NusaTenggara and Nabire in Papua. It took almost a week, but ministers did visit the areas and promised to rebuild them, giving the affected residentsinstant noodles and other foodstuffs. Only local people will know if the
ministers’ promises are followed up by more concrete actions. 

The government has set up the Natural Disaster Coordinating Agency that operates directly under the President’s control. Employees at the agencyhowever complain they are rarely involved in handling disasters. Recent cases have shown that the government does not have a comprehensive networkto deal with floods.

During the flooding in Blora last week, the Minister of Forestry, MS Kaban, disclosed that officially the government had given out quotas allowing 5.7million hectares of forest to be cut down each year.

Meanwhile, estimates show that 72 million cubic meters of timber are illegally produced every year, which costs the government Rp 80 billion(US$ 8.5 million) a day. Rampant illegal logging occurs on a massive scale and there are no serious efforts being made to stop it because the illicitbusiness benefits many people, including top government officials, politicians and businesspeople.

According to the World Bank, deforestation is mainly caused by the large-scale logging of forests and conversion to palm oil plantations alongwith widespread small-holder agricultural conversion.

If the nation continues to carelessly exploit its natural resources it will only be a matter of time — and not a long time — for us to see a desertemerge in our country — the kind of deserts that as yet only naturally exist in continents like Australia or Africa.

Despite this gloomy outlook, however, it is essential for people to keep pushing the government to stop this destruction before it is too late. Itssevere consequences are easily apparent — and time is running out for us to fix things.

Preserving the country’s valuable and unique natural resources is the responsibility of everyone.


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