On the road again: A couple of weeks of volcanic drama finds us on the road again. photos and text copyright Rio Helmi

above: The road to Suter after a heavy ashfall.

It’s been wet for weeks in Bali. It seems the only parts that haven’t been soaked in unseasonal heavy rainstorms are the northern and northeastern slopes of the volcano. My balcony with its direct view of the mountain from the west has been useless, I definitely feel downgraded. It makes keeping track of Mt Agung while attempting to maintain a somewhat normal life even harder. Thankfully there are the six-hourly reports from Magma; the continous stream of information (and endless joking around) on a journalists’ WhatsApp forum; PASEBAYA’s WhatsApp group; and of course the PASEBAYA walkie-talkie round up.

All of which combined could drive you stark raving mad. I have to clear my mobile phone image cache every few days, and the endless, preachy formalities on the radio thing can get painful. More about PASEBAYA later. Altogether there is huge amount of information (peppered here and there with very odd bits of misinformation) to be digested and a large part to be divested (there is a more biological term that would fit with the metaphore but this is a semi-polite blog).

Above: Mt Agung venting gases and ash at sunrise as the full moon sets behind it, the red glow is a reflection of the new lava in the crater .  

But there are those sources who deserve a good mention such as (once again) Jackie Pomeroy’s  Facebook Page “Mt Agung Daily Report”. Jackie puts in daily, clear factual reports supported with seismic data and so forth. Good job!

And above all thank goodness for the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources’ PVMBG or CVGHM (Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazards Mitigation)! Their Volcano Disaster Mitigation team in tandem with seismologists, geologists, and various other specialists work tirelessly, 24 hours a day, and have been exceedingly generous with data; Not to mention the Magma app which all of us volcano addicts consult every six hours!

Why I am blathering on about PVMBG/CVGHM is because it has been selected to receive the IAVCEI’s ((International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior) award, the first which has been given for Volcano Surveillance and Crisis Management. So Indonesia’s CVGHM will be the first volcanology institute to receive this honour!!! Well deserved. See y’all at the Cities on Volcanoes 10 meeting at Naples from 2-7 September 2018 where the award will be officially announced and presented!

Of course it’s hard to beat being directly on the ground. I’ve been up around the volcano intermittently over the past month or two. However this last two weeks I’ve had enough of a sense of urgency come over me to make me go do a few rides to the volcano, rain or shine (mostly soaking rain). This typically reactive enthusiasm was triggered by the news that the mountain had start to re-inflate again since the 13thof May. This a first since the steady deflation of the 6cm bloat, the deformationof the mountain from last year beginning December 2017.

Then there were the flashes of busy seismic activity coming through last week; and of course the low explosivity eruption on the 10thof June before a cold and very wet midnight. This was  followed by more low explosivity eruptions on the 13thand 15thof June. All of these sent up columns of gas and fine ash from around 1000 to 2000 meters high. And in between we’ve had regular, mostly small, daily emissions of gas and ash – or what I like to call venting.

The real purpose of my forays into the rain and ash was to see what was happening with the inhabitants within the 4km ‘exclusion’ zone. Yes, most of them are back, understandably (but not ideally) so. Basically the majority don’t really have other options. Those who have made their fortunes on quarrying have houses elsewhere but others do not. When Eko Teguh Paripurno together with the MAR (Mount Agung Relief)  coalition brought in the volunteers from the various self reliant village volcano disaster mitigation groups in Java to help train the villagers of the 28 administrative villages, we had high hopes (see NFUV part 8). Post village workshops, PASEBAYA was formed with the blessings of the BNPB Indonesia’s national disaster mitigation body.

I can’t really say for sure whether it’s a question of more training or perhaps more facilities that is needed for PASEBAYA to really swing into action beyond mere reporting and search and rescue forays. However what we really need to see is PASEBAYA facilitating grassroots villagers to work out viable contingency plans for their communities: set up reusable camps in safe areas; set aside a small amount of money each month into a community coffer for contingencies; do monthly inventories of their peoples condition (health, economy, etc); plan proper evac actions that make sense for them;  create alternative income sources etc etc. Unfortunately hardly any of the hard earned lessons given to them by the Javanese volunteers seem to have been put into action.

In all fairness it is the provincial BPBD (regional disaster mitigation body) that seems to have dropped the ball on the overall preparedness. Thus the irony: PVMBG gets an award, but their role is an advisory one. Yet those they advise with all this valuable information don’t seem to be able to fully act on it. So it really is up to individuals and grassroots communty to create a sustainable model.

Nyoman Dadi and his wife Wayan Murni

There are some individuals, such as Nyoman Dadi and his wife Wayan Murni from Kidul ling Kerteg and others from Temukus, who have managed to lease farm land far away near Klungkung. They have already harvested cash crops, mainly marigolds and other flowers. When I visit them they and their daughter are hard at work picking, and have even employed a migrant woman from Java. But they are exceptions on the mountain. One factor that has pushed them to do this is that the people from Temukus have spent more time in evacuation than others on the southern slopes due to the fact their roads have been compromised by rain. Nobody wants to attempt an urgent evacuation with volcanic material raining down on a washed out mountain road.

But not everyone in that situation takes the initiative. 121 people from Bukit Galah in Selat district have been out of their village for months – their access road and bridge has been completely washed away by heavy rains earlier this year. They have been stuck in the banjar community hall of Amertha Buana since, relying on government handouts and labouring jobs in the vicinity. The day I stumble on them like some alien from another world, only the old and infirm and infirm are there, listless, whilst young children cling to their grandmothers. It seems the big decision of the day is how much to rice to cook. Don’t get me wrong: when you have to get the host village headman to sign your procurement request for rice and other supplies, then scrape money together for a truck to go to Tanah Ampo a couple of hours  away, go through the paperwork there, load up and come back, it tends to focus your attention.

Evacuees from Bukit Galah in the Amertha Buana community hall

Made Suparta and his wife Luh Duki of Batu Sesa

Lower down, there were those were lucky enough to save their rice harvest just before the big eruptions of November 2017. Made Suparta and his wife Luh Duki of Batu Sesa just managed to harvest their fields a few days before. The day I pulled up at their field the sun shone briefly as they smiled back at me from the depths of their muddy gum boots; at which moment a ourist  in a bright, 60s throwback, tie-dyed cotton dress (or maybe it was just a really big Tshirt) came up the road from the nearby rafting venture to look at the mountain. As if nothing had or would happen in paradise.

A day or two later, up in some of the highest villages of the northern flanks, Pengalusan and Pucang, I chat with locals who seem nonchalant, and the eruptions of of the 10th, 13th, and 15thdidn’t seem to have affected them. Unlike the other side of the mountain, barely 8km away, here it was sunny, bright and even hot. “We don’t hear it, and no ash comes this way.” But that was before the 27th.

Then on the night of the 27thwe had yet another eruption. Slowly a frenzy of seismic activity began. Earlier that day I had headed out to Besakih and Selat, up to Sogra where I found a group of kelihans  on the side of the road high up on the road to Pura Pasar Agung. They said they had packed and were ready but not yet leaving. I thought to myself “What are they waiting for?” but decided not to start a panic. Finally I just said “Make sure you’ve got all the essentials ready and head down when you think the time is right.” A small detail – they weren’t sure where they would go.

All of this flashes through my head as I stand in the community hall of Banjar Bancingah Duda on the 29thmorning as I take in the 230 odd evacuees, waiting listlessly to see what will happen. I’ve been up for about 36 hours at this stage, and on my way back from the northern coast where I have been shooting night and dawn shots of the eruptions,  with a short break for a couple of hours to sleep in Komang Bajing’s restaurant. And here we are again, with a bunch of people with their lives stuffed into large, transparent plastic bags with two public toilets for the lot of them. Luckily the local neighborhood households allows them to use their facilities. Which is kind but it’s but a bandage which masks a failure.


When your whole life is stuffed into plastic bags and you have to share two toilets with 229 other people.

A mother and child in a temporary evacuation camp – true love survives anything.

At least the village chief of Duda,Pak Agung Putra, has jumped into action, setting up supplies for them. The local government clinic comes in to weigh babies and distribute nutritional biscuits. But the question raging in my mind is: why are we not better prepared? Why aren’t there facilities somewhere safe that they can simply move into and stay for a few months instead of this silly back and forth? Did nobody listen when Sukiman and the volunteers from Merapi and the other volcanoes in Java explained how to live with an active volcano? Where are fall-back fields, where are cow sheds for the cattle? Where is the village self reliance action group?

I ride off to the PVMBG observation post in Rendang where Pak Dewa and his crew of seismologists fill me in on the crazy sequence of scores of venting tremors which have fused into one continuous one (there will end up being 69 ventings that day). That glow on the ash plume I was shooting last night was from all the new lava going into the crater which before this happened already had 20 million cubic meters of lava in it. As it stands with the patterns we are seeing, the pressure being released by the ventings, and the mere 1 million cubic meters of magma in the chambers below, there isn’t enough pressure  in the mountain to get more than a Strombolian type explosive eruption such as that which we had in January, with a limited reach of around 4 km. For the most it is what is called effusive eruptions with magma rising unhindered through the conduits to the crater surface.

That is, unless we get another major earthquake on the northern slopes of the volcano like the 5 Richter scale shake up we had onthe 9th of November last year.

I head home dead tired, and just before Suter I ride through a surreal scene – everything has gone white. The ash is half a centimeter thick on the road, and there are motor cycle riders going by with their hands over their mouths – very practical I’m sure.

Sand trucks rolling through Muncan at dawn

On Sunday, 1st of July I do a quick run to the evacuation camps. They are of course empty again – for now. Meanwhile the sand trucks keep rumbling through the villages overwhelming all local traffic – yet another evacuation hazard. Then there is a small resurgence of social media trolls who don’t want any volcano news to disturb tourism. And then there is donor fatigue and volcano drama overload. We haven’t even really begun to set up viable, sustainable and humane mitigations systems. The panic scenario repeats itself. Does anybody who is not an potential evacuee really care?


footnote: There was another eruption of Mt AGung this morning 2nd July at 6:20 am. The column of ash and gases rose 2000 meters above the crater.


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