Rio Helmi tries to unravel some of the confusion

Once again, weeks have flown by and the Gunung Agung drama continues to unfold in a variety of unexpected and sometimes startling ways. Principal amongst these has been the ridiculous “dance around the status pole” by the government (see previous volcano posts). Why they just never listened carefully in the first place is a mystery, but upon investigation it becomes more obvious where the immediate cause lies: lack of preparation, specifically lack of disaster mitigation training and drills.

After all, if you are living in the shadow of one of the earth’s most powerful and unpredictable volcanoes you would think that when you were offered disaster mitigation training even as recently as 2014 you would take it into serious consideration. So far the only visible signs of ‘pre-emptive’ disaster mitigation from the local government we have seen are those orange tsunami evacuation route guide posts around the island (some of them in Karangasem ironically point towards Gunung Agung).

Not that I don’t take tsunami risk seriously. If we had one down south the damage to Bali’s economic center would be disastrous: the airport is only a couple of meters above sea level, the main business hubs of Kuta/Legian/Seminyak/Canggu and on the other side Sanur would suffer badly. That has not of yet spurred any serious effort to preserve the remaining mangrove, a proven tsunami mitigator. We do have sirens though, but they are broken at the moment. Bali is disaster prone: we have significant landslides every rainy season, and during the stormy months of January and February we regularly have storm damage.

Back to the mountain. So this last couple of weeks saw the next act in the drama: “Gunung Agung is still on alert level 4 (Awas) but the rest of Bali is on level 2 (waspada)” cried the headlines at the beginning of the week. No doubt the volcanologists had a good giggle at that: since when do you issue two separate volcanic alerts, one for the volcano and the other for surrounding areas? The PVMBG (volcanology geology disaster mitigation center) never gives out alert recommendations for anything more than the immediately impacted zones around a volcano, what the government does with it is out of their jurisdiction. Creative thinking seems to be a forté of the cabinet. Will Denpasar erupt? Was anyone else confused?

The press conference at the Rendang volcano observation post, Sri Mulyani at the mic, on her left is Luhut.  photo©Ajat Hutdiyanto

Finally on the 22nd of December a group including Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Panjaitan, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, and the Governor of Bank Indonesia Agus Martowardojo held a press conference at the volcano observation post in Rendang clarifying that the alert level was for the volcano only and a 8-10km radius from the crater; the same day President Jokowi rescinded the “Bali Emergency alert status” clarifying the alert level was actually only for the volcano and the danger radius. That only took 3 months for them to figure out.

Luhut went on to make some other statements, and even went as far to say that this time the eruptions would not be as big as 1963 because “only 54 years have passed, and in 1963 it was a hundred years”. I’m not entirely sure of the science here and what his source for this is, as I read in a volcanology article that “Furthermore, no straightforward physical link has been established between the timescale over which magma accumulates in subvolcanic reservoirs and the size of an eruption”.

Mostly this confusion, and the earlier attempts to bring the volcano alert level down despite the volcanologists’ scientific assessment has been mainly driven by the panic to make the IMF conference in October a success and to keep the tourists coming. At the press conference an interesting upshot was Luhut giving a tacit green light to keep mining sand in the danger zones on the mountainside (“It doesn’t matter where the material comes from” he said “you can see the airport underpass is progressing well”). He also promised to definitively take care of the solid waste problem in Suwung by the time of the IMF conference. I personally am curious to see how they will accomplish in 10 months what hasn’t been gotten under control in 10 years. The minister also gave reassurances that airport closure issues will be sorted: “we have learned from our past mistakes”.

Another upshot of this is that this changes the funding source for the evacuee relief. I’m sure there is a sigh of relief in the provincial government offices. While for the time being the rice and other supplies will continue, it is expected that President Jokowi will soon issue a presidential decree for the funding source for the roughly 70,000 evacuees still in camps.

Although the radius they describe will be the initial impact zone if we have an explosive eruption, they seem to have overlooked issues like ash fall, pyroclastic and lahar flows that will definitely reach further, but I suppose one could argue those are secondary effects. Meanwhile the volcano keeps erupting. Today, Saturday 23rd Dec we had a nice one – thick ash cloud 2.5 km high, and ash falling over Tulamben a dive area categorized as (sic) “Save”. (see lead photo by Devy Kamil Syahbana taken from Tanah Ampo)

But still the real issue is the lack of well-planned disaster mitigation, and in the government’s rush to ensure that tourism is safe it has been glossed, not to mention serious efforts at community restoration and rehab. As one young journalist said to me “It seems like they are more concerned about the tourists safety than that of their own people!”.

So much of the tourist resort areas of Bali has been completely remodeled into shopping/entertainment/mall strips that the local communities have been squashed into the backyard. As I asked in my last post, which way forward?

In this regard there is an interesting program afoot. The Mt Agung Relief group (a coalition of several NGOs namely Kopernik, Idep, Bumi Sehat, Balizen, Koperasi Tani Bali Jagaditha plus a few individuals – I have to put in a disclaimer here, I am one of the individuals along with Rucina Ballinger and Mila Shwaiko) are putting together a pilot project in Tembok, one of the independent evacuee centers in Buleleng. The idea is to create a self-reliant model for evacuees that allows them to support themselves and have other ‘normal’ community activities in a semi-temporary camp they would build themselves.

Above: Nyoman Suma Artha on the right walking the BNPB through the project plans (photo by MAR) Below: Self-help – evacuees putting finishing touches on the supply hut in Tembok (photo©Rio Helmi)

We chose Tembok because from the very beginning the evacuees there have displayed excellent community spirit (despite coming from various different villages) and self-discipline, organizing themselves into work groups, cleaning, distributing supplies in an orderly fashion, and building bamboo shelters themselves under the guidance of architects I Gede Kresna and Effan Adhiwara. They have designed a very functional alternative habitat model with dividers which will house about 40 people each from their own communities – we very much want make sure that communities, the backbone of Balinese culture, survive. Each building will have it’s own toilet and washing facilities, plus kitchen.

Nyoman Suma Artha of Balizen, an agricultural based NGO working to improve farmer’s lives through improved organic techniques etc, is for the time being spearheading the overall project. Here is our wish list for this prototype community:

  1. Per shelter: toilet and washing facilities, Kitchen. Plus shared facilities for health care.
  2. Training center, organic farming, organic fertilizer, organic fish ponds, organic chicken and eggs, food processing, Business management, Seedling and nursery, handicraft, marketing, Sustainable community development,
  3. Classes in Balinese writing and reading, culture etc.
  4. Green house, nursery for plants on the slopes of Agung that highly likely will be badly affected by the volcano, e.g. cashew, coconut, lontar, indigofera, manggo, Nimba, etc
  5. catfish etc pond
  6. Chicken and eggs free range.
  7. Cold storage for local fishermen.
  8. and more…

The national body for disaster mitigation BNPB has already committed to supporting the prototype, and there is a big possibility that they will present the project to the president in the near future. That would then involve various departments for initial funding. Ideally we can start to generate other real economic bases and not be so beholden to one industry.

From what we have seen in today’s world, tourism is an industry that unchecked, whilst generating large sums of money, has a history devastating cultures in many countries. One is often left with lots of form and little content. More often than not such massive injections of cash into an economy from a single industry will not only create dependence, but also contribute to highly uneven distribution of wealth, even on a regional scale. Comparing the tourist areas with the areas around the volcano in Karangasem, this has become painfully obvious.

Not only is there a palpable average wealth gap between Karangasem and other regencies in Bali (and within it’s own community), but education too seems to have slipped behind compared for example to its neighbor Buleleng. Many Balinese are of this opinion, in fact one evacuee student refused to go back because “they have much better schools in Singaraja”. There is an urgent need for better higher education opportunities and in something other than hospitality.

Last week I underwent an unexpected medical emergency which required some minor surgery on my skull (it was a subdural hematoma that had started undetected in a bad bike accident on the 1st of November high on the slopes of G Agung ). I had started to display symptoms of a stroke, an MRI revealed extensive bleeding in my skull pressuring my brain (“Aha” I hear the reader cry…) . The emergency room hummed along with everyone doing their jobs well, and the surgery was taken care of the next morning swiftly and efficiently by the Balinese neurosurgeon Dr Budi. The nurses were great, well trained, compassionate, and tireless. Many of them were Balinese, we chatted a lot. Some were there for training, others on contract, others staff. But it was great to see how confident, professional and competent they were. It really struck me that the more diverse quality professions and corresponding industries the better off we will be.

With super professional Dr Budi  – and a bloody mary. Taken by one of the nursing staff.

Balinese don’t all have to be in the tourism business or in supporting businesses. Nor should tourism be the final determining factor for all policy making. A proper healthy community needs balance and variety. Less than a century ago people in Buleleng made fortunes from agriculture, exporting coffee, rice, etc. When I first lived in Ubud in the 70s there were various small businesses on the main street representing a complement of professions: tailor, bicycle repair, etc. Now it’s all Gucci-Smucci. We have flung ourselves down a steep slippery slope in a greedy haste. It’s time to reinvest some of the spoils into a more coherent and effective future.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!


with special thanks to Raisa Andini and Robinson Gamar for recordings from the press conference