Sunday, November 29, 2009

Earthquake Doesn't Kill People...

The picture of the Ring of Fire is copied from here

I wrote this article in early October 2009, intended to be published by an Indonesian newspaper, two days after Padang was hit (again) by a major earthquake. This article was actually to respond to another opinion that was published earlier in that newspaper, that talked about disaster as part of destiny, and that merely criticized the slow response from the government. Here I would like to offer an alternative point of view, that we can actually minimize the risks, and at the end, what really matters would not be the emergency response after so many lives were taken, but how to secure the lives and the properties from the hazards...
The newspaper did not publish this article in their opinion section. Instead, day to day, when I checked their news on the disaster, they still focused on the conservative disaster management measures of rehabilitation and recovery. Maybe my writing was not compelling enough, maybe the people in the editor desk was not aware of the paradigm shift. Whatever it is, it's still a good idea to share this idea to public...
After a series of earthquake along the southern coast of Java in the last two months, last week Indonesia was again stricken by a major earthquake, affecting the people of Padang, claiming hundreds of lives and damages that worth billion rupiah. In this gloomy moment of post-disaster phase, one question that always comes up is, “Why are there so many disasters in this country?”

Most of the people in Indonesia would say that the disaster is solely a matter of destiny. However, despite of this belief, that disaster is unavoidable, there is actually an alternative paradigm about disaster that is worth to look at, which is called “Disaster Risk Reduction”. Disaster Risk Reduction paradigm emphasizes on reducing the disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyze and manage the causal factors of disasters that aims to lessen the vulnerability of people and property and improve the preparedness for adverse events.

Some might say that “managing the causal factors of disaster” sound like a mission impossible. How come we manage something that is so unpredictable such as an earthquake? To answer that, it is worth to first revisit the notion of “unpredictability” in the case of earthquake.

It is true that in comparison other natural hazards such as cyclone or volcanic eruption, the earthquake is more unpredictable. However, the people who live in some parts of Sumatra, such as in Aceh, Bengkulu, Lampung, West Sumatra, and those who live in the islands off the shore of Sumatra, such as Simeuleue, Nias, and Mentawai are familiar with the fact that several times in a year they would feel the earthquakes.

Along the western coast of Sumatra there have been major earthquakes that claimed the hundreds of thousands of lives and caused enormous destructions. Aceh is recorded in the world’s history for the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2004. Added with Liwa earthquake in 1994, Nias 2005, Bengkulu 2007, Simeuleue in 2005 then 2007, and Mentawai in 2005, 2007 and 2009, it is clear that the occurrence of the hazard might not be able to be predicted accurately, yet it is prominent.

In disaster risk reduction, the disaster is seen as the “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources” (UN ISDR, 2009). The earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, and other phenomenon that are commonly categorized as “disasters” are basically “hazards”.

A simple explanation for this concept is, if a major earthquake shook an inhabited island and there were no fatalities, no building collapsed, no public service disrupted, or in other words, the impact of the hazard is not disastrous, then the earthquake is not very likely to be considered as a disaster. It was a different story when the earthquake hit an area like Padang, where thousands of people live in the buildings, and using the public facilities that collapsed as they were not designed to withstand the shock. That is why, a popular quote in disaster risk reduction says that “the earthquake that killed people, but buildings do”.

For too long, the disaster paradigm in Indonesia focused only on emergency responses. The amount of loss due to the catastrophe, added with the funds needed for recovery and reconstruction of a post disaster sites double the costs that should be borne by the government and community. The efforts to mitigate and prevent the disaster and to reduce the risk seemed to be out of the attention even those can potentially save lives and reduce the loss significantly.

Ironically, this ignorance is “culturally acceptable” in Indonesia, as the popular narrative of the risk perceptions echoes a passive attitude towards disaster, that human are “powerless at the face of destiny” instead of believing that there are some parts of the destiny that a human can actually change. Sadly, the narrative of “disaster is destiny and there is nothing we can do about it” is so much reinforced during the post-disaster phase like now.

The fact that people can actually live with risk without having to be the victims have been shown by Japan. Nearly 6,500 dead in the 1995 Kobe earthquake, then Japan then strongly reinforced the building code regulations and disaster management planning. Those significantly reduce the number of fatalities in the later years’ earthquake.

Moreover, the passive attitude toward natural hazards was actually not shown in the nation’s cultural heritages. The traditional houses in Sumatra were built with constructions that could withstand the earthquake and floods. The old lullaby song in Simeuleue taught the children that when the big earthquake and the sea water withdrawn, they should run to the hills. Seeing those examples, the Indonesians should realize that disaster risk reduction is not at all an alien concept in their culture.

Past researches showed that emphasizes on preparedness and mitigation activities are at inherent disadvantage because those are protective measures that have a very long-term pay-off (Lindell and Perry, 2004). This is also case of Indonesia. In April 2007 the Indonesian government has enacted the Disaster Management Bill which sets up a legal and policy framework for the Indonesians to have an institutional arrangement, sufficient resource allocation for disaster risk, and coherent disaster risk intelligence system, which should change the life and the perspectives of the government and the people of Indonesia. However, the implementation of the law has been very slow(Pujiono, 2008).

Indonesia has seen enough disasters. At the other hands, Indonesia has the cultural root of risk reduction, and the legal framework to make it the real part of the Indonesians’ way of living. Those should be more than enough to build a new, safer, and more resilient community; a new culture that rises strongly from the rubbles of the past disasters....

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