Never has the simple chore of “gathering my thoughts” presented such a daunting task, like the proverbial herding of cats. Two weeks ago I would have written a very different post. And every day brings some changes, and every few days something big happens.

text Rio Helmi, photos ©Rio Helmi unless otherwise indicated

As I have written before, Mt Agung is a closed system volcano which has never had a history of being recorded by instrumentation during an active phase. So scientists are literally now recording Mt Agung’s in depth (sorry, no way around this pun) volcanological history for the first time. The day-by-day changes that a huge 3142 meter high, geologically stratified mass can undergo is fascinating. I have a difficult time visualizing the 39million cubic meters of active magma inside the mountain’s belly, and that are now just 4km from the crater’s surface. It doubled to this amount just two days ago on the 9th of November, signaled by a powerful, Richter scale 5+ local tectonic quake that woke up many of the entire island’s population at 5:56am.

Before that, us lay people were lulled by the drastic drop in seismic activity and the alert level being brought down to 3 from 4. After 1000 tremors a day, one or two hundred tremors can seem like nothing. The volcanologists up in Rendang however have been ever more intently watching, and have been joined by several members of the USGS from the States. Mt Agung is apparently a huge new mine of information for volcanologists, its characteristics so particular and its potential force so powerful that it is being watched with great interest by many international volcanologists. Here in Rendang though they are perforce only welcoming USGS scientists in – one can imagine what a circus it would become if they threw the doors open to everyone.

Nonetheless, for me personally it is the human drama that is truly epic. Once the data – analysis in the form of specific, clearly organized numbers and carefully deliberated recommendations – leaves the scientific grounds of the PVMBG observation post it enters a whole different arena. More about that later.

On the ground, and in some cases even in the sea, the real life issue of security, economic and otherwise, was a headache during the level 4 “Awas” alert phase. The heart-breaking plight of subsistence farmers who lost crops and many of whom sold off their livestock at rock bottom prices was drowned out by the cries of the tourist industry who claim to have lost something in the order of two hundred million dollars in the last few weeks. The number seems almost abstract but when you have small privately owned businesses going bust it is more real.

Whole communities that survive off the tourism industry have had common assets threatened. In Tulamben, a popular dive area on the northeastern coast, one of the directions most vulnerable to Mt Agung’s potential volcanic activity, the community has worked for years to preserve a fishing free zone around a famous WWII wreck off the shore. Even neighboring villages benefited from the tourism. Yet when the area was cleared, local community leader Suastika, himself evacuated to Penuktukan, had to coordinate with local police and army officers to patrol the shore. Boats from neighboring villages just outside the danger zone were taking advantage of the situation to come in and fish inside the protected area as the fish were plentiful. The day I visited Suastika he was checking the beach; we managed to see a couple of Spanish free divers being called into shore. The divers apparently were simply checking the free divers’ lines but had failed to notify local police they were going in. Though in this case their intentions were entirely benign it highlights how easy it is to ignore the danger zoning and get through the ‘no-entry’ warnings.

Above: Pak Suastika with police at the beach in Tulamben with a freediver who had transgressed the no activity zone

Top/lead picture: SAR rescue team at Tanah Ampo command center with Agung in the background

But on the other end of the economic scale things are a bit more complicated, and it is here that the complications of finances both international and domestic, have helped make the slippery slopes of local volcano politics even more difficult to negotiate. The IMF and the World Bank are due to hold their Annual Meeting in Nusa Dua mid October 2018, and apparently roughly USD 70,000,000.- has already been earmarked for related infrastructure development and other preparations. And it would seem that those on high are not amused at the prospect of it being cancelled.

In August, the vice-Governor Sudikerta, announced 6 projects that are going to be accelerated – an airport in North Bali, more toll roads, a train line around Bali, and international stadium, a new tourist resort area in west Buleleng, and extensive remodeling around the Besakih temple. It’s not entirely clear to me how that will all come out of the 70 million. In my personal observation the man has always had issues with numbers but then again I’m no financial wiz either. What I do know is that that is a huge order for less than one year, especially as we go into the monsoon.

And much of the sand, gravel and rock for these projects will presumably be coming out of the quarries deep in the sides of the mountains – Agung, Batur, and so forth. These quarries are big, big money. Even during the level 4 Awas levels when nobody was supposed to even be in the innermost zones 6km from the crater, the quarries reopened after a week or two, and trucks became more and more brazen. As soon as the trucks started rolling then the villagers who levy a local fee on them came back, and sure enough some of their families followed. Now, despite the alert level still being at 3 Siaga, and pople within the 6 to 7.5km zones are not to enter, many have come back over Galungan and Kuningan, and some to stay. Suffice it to say that higher up on the feeding chain there are also many who benefit greatly from the continued quarrying.

Above: Quarrying well within the innermorst exclusion zone continues heedlessly along it’s way

Meanwhile the Governor, Mangku Pastika, whose past rulings on which people should evacuate from which areas have followed a confusing and conflicting pattern, has now ordered that people within the 12 and 9km zones should go back. He is on record complaining at various points of the cost of feeding up to 150 thousand evacuees. It shouldn’t be a hard job to push them back, many of the Internally Displaced Persons have had enough of the roughly put together official camps. But what is a bit cruel is that in several camps I have visited recently they have run out of food and are not receiving any subsidies. There is bound to be confusion, but some of these are people from areas within the 6km zones.

What has become very clear to me is that the provincial government, which is responsible for disaster mitigation until the volcano actually erupts after whic it becomes more the responsibility of the national government agencies, was completely unready to deal with the economic fall out. Even the villagers near Merapi have special savings accounts for when they have to evacuate…

The villages on northeastern slopes of Mt Agung tend to be very large areas, running longitudinally up the mountain. So a village like Ban can have hamlets in all three zones (zone 1, 2 and closest to the crater is 3). On Galungan day I rode up to the area with Komang “Bajing” from Datah. From the big road that runs from Pempatan to Tianyar north of the volcano, we explored possible lateral evacuation routes to the newly sealed road that runs down from Paleg to the coast. They were all pretty much rocky tracks which would be a nightmare during an evacuation. The Pempatan-Tianyar road itself is problematic enough, as I have reported before. So we went into from Bonyoh to try and see what other alternatives there were there and for people in Belong, one of the highest hamlets in Ban.

Above: Komang Bajing checking out a trail  crossing an old lava and lahar flow used by villagers to get in and out of their homes near Belong in the upper reaches of Ban village, barely 4 km away from the crater. 

We passed though tiny hamlets on the edge of old lava and lahar flows. We watched as a family on a scooter negotiated a tiny trail through the rocks from their house smack in between two of these old flows. I tried to shut out the image in my head of them trying to negotiate that during an eruption. We interviewed a few people along the waywho said they were just back for Galungan, then moved on heading up a back trail to Belong.

This is where I came unstuck. For some reason I ignored the voices in my head telling me to stop and let some air out of the tyres making them softer. We were doing fine until a particularly nasty, slightly steep bit which I took just a bit too fast, the tyre bounced back hard and my wrist snapped down, twisting the throttle full bore. Next thing I know I was on the ground with the bike on top of me, the panniers just wide enough to save my leg. I don’t remember too much of it but Komang riding behind me was beside himself. He got me up and the bike and somehow we got to the main road. He insisted on riding  alongside back me to Ubud, though he lives in Amed. What a champ.

The few days I took off from surveying the evac routes after that were not without changes. The incident commander of the government Task Force, Lt Col. Fierman Syafirial Agustus finally got to move on to Jakarta where his new job at the Special Forces command awaits him. He was a one off. He opened the doors to us, and set up volunteer from Merapi Sukiman for his first socialization session with Pempatan, and many more things. I went along to the farewell ceremony in Karangasem just to remind myself why I don’t go to these things. But I was glad to know that I still remember the words to the national anthem, especially as I was surrounded by military personnel, I felt like I was back in school. Surviving the overwhelming drone of the inevitable speechfests, I finally joined the line and shook his and his wife’s hand and must say I will miss him and our sometimes philosophical discussions. My visits to Tanah Ampo will be very different from now on.

On the way home I drop in to Sibetan to deliver some money for evacuees who have run out of food, including those from Galih who I had visited before in Br Kreteg. Chatting with Wayan Doble, the village secretary, we agree that we won’t really know what is happening with the evacuees from the inner zones until after Kuningan on Monday.  However it should be noted that some of the evacuees from the 6km zone started moving back not just for Galungan or Kuningan but because they were running out of food.

Above: Farewell for Baopak and Ibu Fierman. Below: Children from Galih at Br Kreteg in Sibetan


Rucina Ballinger, my fellow volunteer in the MAR group, described her conversation with the head of the village of Ban: “I just met with the perbekel of Ban. As there is no food at the Logistics Posko, people in the 6 km zone have gone home. When I asked the Perbekel what the evacuation plan was for the eruption, you know what he said? LARI. Lari kemana? I asked. Nah itu dia. he responded.” (Lari means run in Indonesian. Run where? “Well that’s the thing…” he responded). It must be scary for them as it is in this area that the quakes did the most damage.

Coming back to recommendations that the PVMBG passes on to the government. It is here, both at the interface where the information is passed on, and in the subsequent implementation of mitigation policies by the provincial and local governments, that there are fault lines that run along deep fissures of perception and preparedness. In 2013 and 2014, disaster mitigation experts, fresh from experiences in Merapi and Kelud, had offered volcano community training programs to the provincial disaster mitigation body but the offer was met with tepid response if any at all. It took this occurrence to highlight this woeful, flatfooted state.

As usual accusations flew thick through the air, and it seemed the easiest target were the volcanologists. For many of the journalists who either camped up at the observation post or who checked in regularly it was evident that the volcanologists were working hard, diligently, and with great care. It seemed unfair that for political or economic reasons that they should be targeted. In any case we hope we have done a reasonable job conveying the science. We even had t-shirts with the hash tag #istandwithpvmbg printed on the front. Here’s a pic of three of us holding in our stomachs, such is our support! (Look, either that isn’t really an XL shirt or I’m bigger than life).

Above: Where we stand

Back to the decision to raise the level to 4. After making their decision and raising the level they decided to run their decision by USGS expert, specifically John Pallister (head of Volcanic Disaster Assistance Program of the USGS), who in his response said that he was initially surprised that the decision to raise the alert level was taken at that moment, as in the past the PVMBG had waited till much later, but when he studied the situation further and took into consideration the possible damage and threat to lives, he completely concurred and even commended the decision.

To put it into terms that I can understand: Here’s a volcano that is one of the most powerful in the world, it’s an inscrutable closed system, there are no scientific records. The ramp up was fast, a matter of days. There are around 35,000 people living in zones that would be directly and dangerously affected. There had been no disaster or evacuation training or volcanic phenomena knowledge transferred. The area is difficult to evacuate from in a hurry, most of the routes are treacherous. Basically it’s clear that it was a good call, and any attempt to question it needs a good hard look: what is the motivation for second-guessing this call? Indeed if the right mechanisms and training had been in place it would have been a simple evasive action to move over and wait it out. Instead we had chaos, confused messages. As one of the scientists at the post put it succinctly; “We’re not setting the levels, the mountain is. We’re just relaying that information.”

A very positive thing that has happened is that disaster mitigation expert Eko Teguh Paripurno has dropped his teams of volcano volunteers- villagers who have received and successfully implemented proper programs for evacuation etc and who have been trained up to pass on their knowledge and train others – into Bali and they have dispersed to several of the closest villages. They stay in the villages for several days, not only training but also getting the villagers to then design their own evacuation and so forth, assessing it at the end of the day. They hang out with them and are thus getting the Balinese villagers to join their network so they can conitue to exchange information and knowledge. So this lull has been a blessing!

Above: A group of villagers from Pempatan learning how to make their own evacuation maps and plans. Below: the DNA and fingerprint sign off on a solidarity declaration for Gunung Agung inhabitants. Both photos ©Sukiman