Indonesians faced a bleak Christmas this year, after a tsunami crashed into the islands of Java and Sumatra on Saturday, following an underwater landslide caused by the eruption of the nearby volcano Anak Krakatau. Indonesian authorities said Tuesday that the death toll had risen to 429. The army is still searching for survivors, with 154 people still reported missing and another 1,500 injured. Homes were destroyed, displacing over 16,000.
Tragically, it’s the second such incident in just a few months. In late September, an earthquake and resulting tsunami killed over 2,000 on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
The disasters themselves are an unfortunate result of geography. Indonesia lies in the midst of the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire” – the meeting point between four different tectonic plates. It surrounds the Pacific Ocean and is a focal point for most of the world’s earthquakes and volcanic activity. The subduction process, in which one plate slides beneath another, leads to the formation of volcanos such as Anak Krakatau. In this case, it’s believed that an eruption led to a landslide on its slope that caused a tsunami, without any seismic activity like an earthquake.
The earthquakes common along the Ring of Fire are also responsible for a history of even more destructive tsunamis in the region.
However, bad planning and government negligence may have also played a role in the level of destruction in the recent incidents. Just after the tsunami, officials admitted that Indonesia’s tsunami warning system hasn’t functioned for the past six years, since 2012. On Monday, President Joko Widodo ordered Indonesia’s disaster agency to purchase a new warning system.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesperson for the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management, attributed the defunct state of the warning system to “vandalism, lack of funds, technical faults” in a series of tweets.
For an island nation so vulnerable to volcanic activity, allowing this system to fall out of repair to begin with, and the lack of transparency for six years, are inexcusable.
While there is a system in place to warn of tsunamis from earthquakes, Sutopo acknowledged that a system is also needed that can be “triggered by undersea landslides and volcanic eruptions.”
Warning systems for non-seismic tsunamis usually consist of a pressure recorder on the ocean floor to detect changes in pressure, which transmit data to buoys on the surface which send the warning back to land.
Experts have noted that in the case of the recent tsunami, advanced notice would have been limited even with a buoy warning system in place, since the eruption and landslide occurred close to the affected coastline. But with much of the damage occurring along beaches during holiday celebrations, any amount of warning may have had the potential to limit the loss of life.
Officials have acknowledged that lives could have been saved, according to The New York Times.
In the days since, false alarms and confusion over the possibility of further tsunami waves have caused additional panic and chaos. A clear and dependable warning system, one that has earned the faith of the public, could help avoid this kind of chaos, which can further complicate rescue and recovery efforts in disaster areas.
And in any case, history shows that the country is highly vulnerable to such incidents, and the warning system would surely save lives over time. While tsunamis caused by these volcanic events are rarer than those caused by earthquakes, there are 127 active volcanos on the Indonesian archipelago.
The existing system is also in need of improvement. In September’s tsunami, warnings failed to reach certain groups since the earthquake had destroyed some cell towers in the area. Officials have also been accused of mishandling the warnings, cancelling the alerts too soon after they went out.
Indonesia is the fourth largest nation in the world, with 261 million people stretched over an archipelago including 17,000 islands. Properly disseminating alerts in such a short time frame certainly involves formidable logistical hurdles. But meeting those challenges would save lives, and should be a top priority for officials.
The government has now committed to putting a new warning system in place. It will be crucial to make sure they keep their word, and to do so quickly, given the frequency, intensity, and destructive power of tsunamis in the area.