In which Rio Helmi picks up and does a very wet round-the-volcano bike trip this week to check on what’s there now, what isn’t anymore, and what might come.

It’s been more than two months since the last instalment of this series. Though of course life goes on in Karangasem regency – home of the volcano – this last month has brought with it some significant events. Since December 30th, 2018 Mt Agung has erupted seven times.

Though all seven have been low intensity (VEI 1 and under, with ash columns no higher than 2000m above the crater), it pretty much substantiates the probable scenario that PVMBG volcanologist Devy K Syahbana put forward soon after the devastating 6.9 Richter earthquake in Lombok on the 5thof August 2018. Back then, barely a week after the July 27theruption,  I asked him what effect the quake along the Flores back arc (which more or less ends on Bali’s northeastern coast) would have on Mt Agung. He explained that for the time being the quake would knock the gases out, perhaps even widening the vents, releasing pressure for the time being. But then eventually we would see some more activity from the volcano once things ‘settled down’.

In the intervening months we have had the intermittent degassing caused by the volcanic conduits being widened by the quake. We also had the odd volcanic tremors indicating that it was still busy down there. Now it seems that we are back into a phase of eruptions. For the near future however it is unlikely that we will get a sizeable eruption of around VEI 3 with a column of ash 4000m above the crater like that at the end of November 2017. If you include Mt Agung’s roughly 3000m heighth, that’s an alititude of 7000m above sea level (the Australian government Bureau of Metereology put it at 9000m above sea level). At that time there was more than 40million cubic meters of magma in the chambers below the crater, now for the past months it has been steady at under 1 million cubic meters, and mostly in the shallower chamber. So conditions are still nowhere near that of late 2017.

Early morning of the 22nd January 2018 eruption taken from Telkomsel’s cctv.

At this point the hottest spots in the crater tend to be on the eastern side, and night cctv videos/photos of a couple of the eruptions clearly show some incandescent material being ejected in an easterly direction though for a distance of probably less than 1 kilometer. Of course the contrast with the dark makes the glow look larger and more dramatic. Ash and sand have been thrown out much further. The predawn eruption on the 23rdof January threw out sand as far away as Datah and surrounding villages, and even Culik. Ash traveled as far as Les on the northeastern shores of the island. Once the columns get up to around 1500-2000m it’s really up to the whims of the winds. However so far in this latest spate of eruptions no VONA warning for flights has gone beyond orange – red would shut down flights in whichever direction the wind is blowing.

What has really been doing much more dramatic damage to human habitation is the weather. We are in mid-monsoon: landslides and flooding wreak havoc around the mountain villages in Bali. The 28 villages nestled on and aorund Mt Agung are no exception. The clay underlay in some areas, particularly around the Abang slopes make the monsoon treacherous. We have seen local village bridges carried away in a couple of hours of heavy downpour, roads cut off, electricity poles and cables downed. And of course we see new flows of lahar coming down rivers like Yeh Sah.

Above: Yeh Sah river once again flooded with Lahar and ripping up embankments. Below: A party of villagers returning from Besakih to Muncan crossing Yeh Sah – not the best evacuation route.

The 7thof January marked the beginning of the eight Balinese lunar month, Sasih Kawulu. Traditionally this is the month of big storms and high winds. Normally very reliable, the weather ‘predictions’ of the Sasih almanac have suffered a few permutations the last few years due to global warming; but this time it is bang on. Winds started howling just days in, and we’ve had some spectacular storms. There have been numerous buldings smashed by falling trees (a classic Sasih Kawulu hazard in Bali) around the mountain. And roads – don’t get me started,

On my last, very wet ride around the mountain on the 22nd  I had gone up to Sogra above Selat, up to the Pura Pasar Agung parking lot. The wind was howling through the trees, it was eerie being alone up there. A few hundred meters down I stopped at a post selling tickets for a selfie platform (they are everywhere in Bali now – sigh) where several local men sat. We chatted for what must have been 45 minutes. No ticket buyers showed up during that time.

I think one of the older men recognized me from my supply visits to the Bukit Galah evacuation camp (see part 14), either that I’m starting to look very officious. Straight away they decided I knew everything there was to know about the volcano. “So is it going be a big eruption?” , “Is it stopping?”, “Which way will it blow”? I told them what I knew, and diverted the conversation to the evacuation routes. Beside the fact that this kind of sidetrack saved me from being exposed as a rank amateur ‘volcano expert’, I was genuinely concerned at the state of the roads since the last time I had been up here.

On the way up I had crossed the Yeh Sah river, it was again a flow of brown lahar. The road up to Sogra went past the quarries – two new ones are now operating on the east side of the road. Before the heavily laden trucks would crawl down the wrong side of the road for about 100 meters to avoid bad patches, now they do it for about half a kilometer. And when I had last seen the folks from Bukit Galah they were taking their leave from their evacuation camp in Amertha Buana, excited to go home after 13 months. The road had been fixed by a private donor (see part 15). Though apprehensive, I had been gladdened to see their spirits up. That repair lasted about two weeks until the first major monsoon downpour. And they are still up there.

When I asked about Bukit Galah’s evacuation route, old man’s nephew spluttered: “How fast and how far can our legs take us if the mountain erupts??? And as far as my uncle goes, he can’t even run anymore!”. To which his uncle smiled wryly. “Anyway, we don’t know where to go.” Which brings me full circle back to the evacuation camp issue. Nobody wants to go back to the sports arena in Klungkung “although we really like the Bupati of Klungkung, he’s the real deal.”. So there we have it: it’s been a year an a half since Agung’s villages were put on high alert. In that time the whole “sister village” concept for evacuation camps has not been implemented any further than a fading chart in local volcano self-reliance association PASEBAYA’s HQ;  no evacuation routes have effectively been improved, in fact some are in worse condition; no community evacuation drills have been performed.

After a while I asked about the water reservoir just above where we were. “Do you use it for drinking?”, “Yes”. “Have they flushed all the ash out from the last big eruptions?”,  “No, but we saw that nobody died from drinking it so we all drink it. But we boil it”. In effect the people from Sogra, Bukit Galah and Kebun are all drinking tainted water.  During this whole conversation there has been lots of wry laughter and pleasanteries, but all of this is very far from ideal. Later I call up Ewa from Kopernick and she assures me we can get a big discount on water filters. I don’t want to give them away because nobody values something they get for free unless it’s something they really covet. Which these peoples don’t – the danger is too abstract. Consuming that water for around six or so months probably won’t affect anyone’s health, but I’m not sure about long term effects of the higher content of various elements like sodium, flouride, calcium, potassium, magnesium, sulfate etc, even the quite small amounts of mercury and lead that ash adds to water. We’ll have to check.

Time to push on. The lowering dark grey skies make 5pm seem like early evening. The rain sets in properly on the way down but thankfully as I get into Karangasem town it stops. I locate an ATM, fill up the beemer and head out north east – only to lose my way in this small town. In disbelief I finally navigate out to Tirta Gangga where my favourite warung and local information source turns out to be closed. I opt for a new place, and eat dinner to the sounds of the middle aged owner teaching his school age daughter how sing kidung from her school text. The rain suddenly comes belting down again. I consider overnighting here but I really want to be on the coast.

35 minutes drenching minutes later I give up and overnight in Tulamben, soaking wet and discouraged by the storms and headlights blinding me through the raindrops on my visor. The next morning early I head out for a rather lackluster pre-dawn shoot of the mountain from a spot near Muntig. I have of course miscalculated where the setting supermoon will be – it’s well hidden behind Agungs’ massive flanks. Then my usual local warung establishment finally starts showing signs of life at around 5:00 am. I manage to get some hot tea which put me in a better mood, followed by a plate of rice, veggies and egg. Ibu didn’t know that there had been an eruption just a couple of hours ago; to be honest it didn’t seem like a big deal to her. But she did tap my money briskly over some of her wares  to bring good business luck. It’s nice being the first customer for the day. So glamorous is the life of the damp documentary photographer…

As the sun finally struggled up I stopped in at Tulamben’s diver drop off point on my way back to the hotel. On the coast the Supermoon of 21-22nd brought record tides just before midnight – as well as huge waves slamming high up on to the shores of Bali. Fishermen who ignored warnings to secure their boats for the extreme weather suffered considerable losses. I found scores of scooters parked on the access roads. Rocks from the beach covered at least 6m of the concrete access road. Fishermen were milling about picking up pieces of their smashed jukungout riggers. Emotions were high as they dragged outriggers out of the wreckage flung as far as 6 meters inland.

Above: Jukung outriggers thrown up the beach and mangled. Below: Wayan Suparta “We came down and checked at 7pm – it all looked ok. Then we came  down at 10:30pm but it was too late…”

Fisherman Pak Wayan Suparta smiled wanly as he pointed to his boat, hull fractured, outriggers ripped out of their housings. “A complete jukung costs around 12 million Rupiah, that’s without an outboard” he sighed. I didn’t have the heart to ask him if he still owed anything on the boat. But at least his outboard, which he bought second hand at around 14 million Rupiah, was safe. I did however get up the nerve to ask him if they hadn’t heard the metereology warning about the supermoon tides. “Yes we did. But when we came down and checked at around 7pm everything seemed normal so we just secured the boats in their normal places to the cement posts about 4m up from the water. We heard the waves smashing on the beach at about 10:30pm but by the time we came down it was too late and too dangerous to save the boats. By 11pm the crashing waves were bursting up at least 4m high.”.

That morning I continue on to Tianyar to check the progress of the temporary shelter village Mt Agung Relief and East Bali Poverty Project are  jointly preparing. Basically David Booth and I came up with a simple design, the protoype of which was featured in part 15. I’m a little disappointed that the holidays of Galungan and Kuningan and the rains have really slowed down progress, but a quick meeting with David and Komang Kurniawan (whose family land is generously being loaned for the site) and we all agree to get the villagers of upper Ban back on it.

Temporary shelter village in Tianyar – a little slow because of all the holidays and rain…

This really is the frustrating story of disaster mitigation in Bali. You can’t just tell people, and you can’t expect it to self propel. You have to be proactive,  you have to show them. And socialisation of the various disaster possibilities has got to be visual and visceral. And we have to have drills. Simple announcements in the media don’t drive it home. Panic alerts just confuse people. We really need to have a systematic program going.

Which includes dealing with the rather reckless and thoughtless foreigners who continue to bribe guides to contravene PVMBG’s directive to stay out of the 4km zone around the crater and no climbing. The mountain is active, it’s releasing potentially deadly gases constantly and even erupting. Just this week a Russian climber had to be rescued. The rescue party had to climb up to find him, even though there is currently also a religious ban on climbing due a major ceremony in Besakih. The rescue party and the support team then got trapped by floods for 3 hours due the poor state of evacuation routes in Temukus. All because some young men really wanted to prove something. Though by law it is not possible to prosecute them, I think there is enough of a case to deport them. As every foreigner entering Indonesia has to have a valid return ticket, I think that Immigration could expedite that easily enough.

Above: Russian would-be adventurer and the PASEBAYA and SAR rescue team who found him (and his sprained ankle). After bringing him down the rescue team and the support team were trapped for 3 hours by flash floods on the Temukus evacuation route. Photo from  PASEBAYA Below: Pak Dewa, gesturing left, who heads the Rendang observation post talks Minister Jonan (right with sunglasses) in the new observation room.

It’s not that we lack the science a coordinated and comprehensive mitigation program. Now the facilities are getting better. Witness the newly refurbished Agung volcano observation post in Rendang. Observers now have an upgraded observation room where not only can they monitor all the seismographs and data input from all the posts around the mountain including Batur, they also have much better direct visuals. Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources Pak Jonan was pleased with the results (though he did chide the post personnel on the lackluster hygiene in the brand new bathrooms). What we do need is to work on getting people trained and evacuation facilities up to scratch. That’s the real essence of disaster mitigation. Preparedness is really about political will.


UPDATE: Work has resumed on the temporary shelters. Below are photos from Komang Kurniawan/EBPP

text ©Rio Helmi

all photos ©Rio Helmi unles otherwise indicated

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