This weekend is the anniversary of the first mass evacuation on Gunung Agung’s slopes following the level 4 (Awas) alert issued by the official the Centre for Volcanic and Geological Hazard Mitigation on the 22nd of September 2017.

by Rio Helmi

On the horizon of instagram and facebook posts, Mt Agung stands deceptively serene. Up in Temukus above Besakih flowers are blooming again in people’s farms, and even the expatriate Edelweis, prized for it’s high value and demand for ceremonies, is flourishing.  In the middle of the flower farms, there are now a couple of  sprawling ‘selfie-parks” made of bamboo. Down in the plains the volcano is no longer any kind of priority. “The mountain has finally stopped hasn’t it? It’s gone back to sleep.” says the near toothless grandfather who serves me hot coffee  early one morning in his small, smokey warung stall by the road as I sit out an unseasonal deluge in Tulikup. In fact nearly the entire “dry season” this year has been wet.

The “White Valley Eternity” selfie park in Temukus

Even the Edelweiss is back!

Yet while most everyone living within, on, or close to the 4km exclusion zone still recommended by the CVGHM has gone home, the people of Bukit Galah hamlet, in the northeastern corner of Amertha Bhuana village near Selat, aren’t going home just yet. True, the CVGHM are maintaining a Siaga alert ( level 3 out of 4), but the problem is more the condition of the access road to their homes.

As I write this they are officially the last evacuee group still in a camp, all 122 of them. When I first visit them a few months ago in a banjar  (community hall) in Amerta Bhuana village I find a handful of them amongst hodge podge of mats, thin matresses, and plastic BNPB (Indonesia’s national disaster mitigation body) sheeting and tarpaulins. “The younger people are out working at laboring jobs. It’s just us here, the old, the sick, and the little ones. The older women cook together” says a dignified old man who serves me coffee – a code of hospitality that is kept even in these conditions. “Getting the rice means a bit of red tape but we manage. Unfortunately all we get is BULOG rice”. BULOG (Badan Urusan Logistik) is Indonesia’s national logistics distribution bureau that distributes food throughout the archipelago.

Nowadays when people talk about getting rice supplies they talk about “getting logistik”. What the old man is referring to is the notoriously bad quality of the stockpiled BULOG ’logistik’. From the samples I have seen in a few different camps, it’s often musty and sometimes even crumbling. Volcanic Disaster mitigation guru Eko Teguh Paripurno and I once visited a camp above Klungkung where some of the women who were cooking said they were nearly out of rice.  In fact they still had a couple of sacks of BULOG rice but were loathe to cook it.

It’s easy for us sitting at home to say “beggars can’t be choosers”, but when you’ve been in a camp for a while you get desperate to hang on to whatever quality you can get.  A couple of months and a couple of pick-up loads of veggies plus rice later, I revisit the Bukit Galah group. They are all still there, and it’s now been 11 months since they fled their homes.

The road to Bukit Galah from Amerta  Bhuana

The broken bridge on the way to Bukit Galah is finally being fixed (by private donation, not the government). Yet they still don’t want to go home. I venture up from Amerta Bhuana on my bike, weaving through a network of small roads under the shade of bamboo forests lining salakplantations. Then the asphalt ends – even though I am on a so-called adventure bike it still takes a bit of wrestling to get the thing up the rocky, consistently potholed kilometers of ‘road’ just to get to the muddy turn off that leads to the infamous river. By the time I get to the turn off I’m a tad unnerved, it’s getting late and I don’t feel like negotiating this in the dark. From the point of view of disaster mitigation standards  it’s a nightmare – the road surface will make emergency evacuation with fully laden scooters harrowing, the bamboo overhanging the road could collapse under the weight of ash fall. Where even a daytime evacuation would be harrowing, a night time evacuation with the volcano erupting would be unimaginable.

In reality the mountain is hardly asleep. Though currently at a much reduced scale of explosivity, Mt Agung is currently still active. The daily magmatic activity recorded in the seismographs over the  last couple of months since the eruptions at the end of June –  ventings, volcanic tremors, local tectonic quakes – and the near daily emissions of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) from the crater bear witness to. It is one of the unique characteristics of this volcano that it can experience multiple intrusions of magma resulting in a long, extended period of activity (the series of eruptions beginning in 1843 lasted four years), and it can display a variety of different types of eruptions.

The “soda bottle effect” – Mt Agung venting

Ironically, the devastating tremors that have wreaked havoc in Lombok have actually contributed to degassing the volcano due to the relatively small amount of magma in the chambers below.  One volcanologist calls it the “soda bottle effect”. If you shake up a bottle of soda with just a little in it, it will fizz and then quickly go flat without frothing out.

As of the morning of the 14thof September 2018, Mt Agung seismograms had recorded several deep volcanic tremors measuring up 21mm in amplitude and also local tectonic quakes also measuring 21mm in amplitude (in plain English that’s just about over scale on the seismograph). These are classic symptoms of magma instrusion under the volcano, though expert estimates put it below one million cubic meters in the chambers below the crater. By comparison, in November we had 40million cubic meters in the chambers below, which led to the largest eruptions so far in the current cycle.

More smaller quakes (ca magnitude 4 or less) on the Flores back arc in the last week appear to have released some of the gases from this magma. This judging by the lack of significant seismic activity in the hours that follow a few of these ‘distant tectonic tremors’ (distant from Agung’s seismographic persepective). At least that was my impression looking at the 6 hourly reports that the ‘Magma’ app publishes, however there really isn’t a strong enough trend to establish this as a pattern . Yet it’s clear that more magma intrusion in the future is very likely. In the condition the mountain is now, with all the conduits up to the craters clear of obstruction, the probability of follow on eruptions in the future is still high. Think of a cleaned and oiled gun, waiting to be loaded. A brief look at the volcano’s history over the centuries will also reveal similar extended periods of limited activity followed by eruptions.

In figures, the probability of low explosivity eruptions is in the high percentiles, and the probability of a high explosivity eruption of VEI 5 (of which Agung has a somewhat consistent history over the centuries) is in the much lower percentiles. But as the Head of Volcanic Mitigation for Eastern Indonesia, Devy Kamil Syahbana PhD puts it: “When it comes to a volcano like Agung, given its history, any risk, however small the chance, has to be taken seriously”.

Meanwhile the mantra “Bali is Safe” is still being mumbled about by the authorities. It looks like they just want to get through next month’s big IMF conference in Nusa Dua without the volcano belching out an airport-blocking cloud of ash; as if warding it off with this mantra (there will probably be a huge cloud of incense to replace it). They are reluctant to take up the motto some of us would prefer: “Bali is prepared”. Cynics might think that’s probably because they’d haven’t done that much to actually be prepared. I have to admit that for the time being there isn’t that much evidence to the contrary, though there seems to be a much greater awareness of the need. And to be fair, the devastation of Lombok has really kept everybody, government and otherwise, pretty busy. Which is precisely the hurdle that I find my self facing now.

As some of the main elements in the MAR (Mt Agung Relief) coalition, including Kopernik, Idep, and Bumi Sehat understandably have shifted most of their attention to Lombok, I somehow found myself being the point person on the ‘temporary village’ project we had planned for Tembok (see the final paragraph of part 13of this series).

Heh – I walked straight into this one. It really has been a slightly maddening game of shifting goal posts. Despite the best intentions and efforts of the village head of Tembok, the land that was originally used for the project  ‘was no longer available for extended use’.  To his chagrin, the  alternative land further down in Tembok didn’t fill the necessary disaster mitigation criteria. It’s a shame, I quite like Pak Dewa’s practical way of thinking and organizing people.

A kitchen badly damaged by the earthquake but just useable  in Bunga, Ban

As the saga of the earthquakes’ shattering effects on the hamlets in the upper reaches of Ban village continued, more than 40 houses up there were flattened or rendered unliveable. When I organized couple of relief deliveries including tarpaulins on behalf of MAR for Ban,  it became evident that tarpaulins have become the price gougers’ new favourite plaything.

An elderly local hardware shop owner politely explains to me: “It’s getting really hard to get them now that Lombok is urgently needing them. You understand of course that I can’t give you even more discount on the two I have left – otherwise I won’t be able to order more”.  Though the discount he gives me hardly puts a dent on the extra whack he has already put on them, it’s hard to argue when he is the only person in town who has any at all. And he knows it. I count out the red hundred thousand notes on his glass topped desk amongst the shovels and hoes. Then the driver sets off with the pick-up full of rice and dry beans and tarps, plus some funds to buy more tarps on the way in Gianyar and Klungkung. The prices we get along the way all vary quite a bit!

Finally we get a great break for the long term evacuation village project for the hamlets of Pengalusan, Cegi and Pucang in upper Ban. East Bali Poverty Project’s Komang Kurniawan offers several hectares of his family land in Tianyar outside the exclusion zones to be used. As EBPP works closely with those hamlets,  hopefully the socialisation process should be easier. They have even already built classrooms and dormitories for school children in anticipation of volcanic emergency. At least EBPP is “prepared”!

At one stage Komang and I head over to Bengkala to architect Gede Kresna’s headquarters to discuss design. Gede and his wife are big on going back to heritage foods and countering consumeristic lifestyles. They are into slow foods, and in true Buleleng tradition, distilling their own arak.  We chat about various aspects of temporary housing. The room starts filling up with people. It seems that Komang and I have walked into a meeting of Buleleng intellectuals, and Gede ends our group lunch by bringing out samples of his best arak. There is a whole ritual to it, which as teetotaler I miss out on. Which also means that any hope of getting further with design talk is over for the day. But I have new friends.

However we do continue online – for a slow foodie and back to nature guy, Gede is busy putting in the miles flying around Indonesia working on different projects! The idea is that though basic, the housing will be comfortable enough physically and psychologically for evacuees to live  and function in. There will area for their cattle and simple kitchen gardens.

Proposed design for temporary housing by Gede Kresna

Finally after a lot of tooing and froing we have a basic design and an idea of the budget for temporary family housing out of bamboo, some wood and other local materials. With a bit of luck we can have all the materials (minus roofing, that will depend on what is available) for one 6×4.5m house for around Rp 8million. The work would be done by the future inhabitants, and there would be some extra expenditure for roofing and simple foundations. The idea is that the house would be knockdown, and if the bamboo is treated properly it could last long enough for the owners to bring it back up the mountain once the volcano crisis is over. It could serve as a stop gap while they rehabilitate their original dwellings.

So there is light at the end of the Ban tunnel. Yet this kind of disaster mitigation in Bali is never as straighforward as finding land an building housing. People here have very strong ties to their ancestral lands, and also have strong preferences of where they would rather evacuate to based on relationships they have with different communities. There is a whole socialisation process to go through, let alone getting the funding. But Komang’s generosity, Gede’s willingness to work on design, and EBPP’s good relations with the communities up there give me hope.

On the other side of the mountain, the situation of the Bukit Galah evacuees for the time being is almost the opposite of the people in upper Ban. These are people who have been living in evacuation for nearly a year now and would be more than willing to have a better situation. But here, on the southern slopes of the volcano, the population is much denser and it’s harder to find land. I have a sympathetic ally in the form of the head of Duda village, Gung Giri – a practical, humble man who gets on with his work while others pontificate. Unfortunately most of the public land in Duda is within the 12 km exclusion zone or along possible lahar flows.

At one point in neighboring Duda Timur I thought it would be possible to use the site of the failed Putung resort. I get off my high horse and go and see village head and Pasebaya chief Gede Pawana. We’ve had our differences in the past. He tells me the Bupati(Regent) wants to get investors in to revive it. I’m not entirely convinced that it actually is the Bupati’s idea but there’s no point in pushing. He makes it clear that he is looking for an investor. And it’s pretty clear I’m not his guy. So the hunt for land in an area which is receptive to the Bukit Galah people and close enough for them to make the occasional visit back to their farms continues.

Meanwhile long term Aussie resident Mark Keatinge and his Balinese wife Ketut have put me in touch with retired hotelier and passionate bee keeper Wayan Kele. Pak Yan is originally from Duda, enthusiastic, and willing to help.  While right now I can’t even see the shifting goal posts in the Bukit Galah game, there is a lot of good will out there. That gives me hope.


all photographs ©Rio Helmi

if you would like to contribute to the temporary village projects you can donate via Kopernik – please add the message “For Agung” to your transfer

Bank Mandiri
Branch: KCP Ubud 14510
Customer Name: Yayasan Kopernik
Account Name: Yayasan Kopernik
Account Number: 1450018048898


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