Indonesia's deadliest year in more than a decade

Sisters Sakinah, 49, and Zulfina, 55, with the items they had salvaged from their destroyed home in the Petobo neighbourhood of Palu, in Central Sulawesi, after a tremor-triggered tsunami struck in September.
Sisters Sakinah, 49, and Zulfina, 55, with the items they had salvaged from their destroyed home in the Petobo neighbourhood of Palu, in Central Sulawesi, after a tremor-triggered tsunami struck in September.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA • At least 4,231 people died or were declared missing during natural disasters across the Indonesian archipelago this year, making it the country's deadliest year in a little over a decade, the national disaster management agency (BNPB) said.

The string of disasters that hit Indonesia in 2018 began in January when an earthquake shook Jakarta on Jan 23, with the epicentre located in Lebak, Banten province. The quake struck in the afternoon when most city dwellers were at work and school. Panic ensued. People fled buildings and severe traffic jams followed.

The BNPB has recorded 2,426 natural disasters since, including a 7.4-magnitude earthquake that rattled Central Sulawesi in September and a 6.4-magnitude earthquake that jolted Lombok and Bali islands in July.

The actual number of disasters this year was lower than the 2,862 recorded in 2017, but the number of casualties was far higher than in 2017 - when 378 lives were lost - and in 2016, which recorded 578 deaths from 2,306 disasters.

"This year is a disastrous year for Indonesia. At 4,231, it is the largest death toll that we have seen since 2007," BNPB spokes-man Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in Jakarta recently.

Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) chairman Dwikorita Karnawati said the nation lacked programmes to raise disaster awareness despite the country sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire, making it prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Data from the United States Geological Survey showed that from Jan 1 to Dec 24, the country experienced 221 earthquakes measuring more than magnitude 5. The number of earthquakes measuring more than magnitude 2.5 was 1,807 in the same period.

BNPB head Willem Rampangilei said hydrometeorological hazards - those that are atmospheric, hydrological or oceanographic in nature - accounted for 97 per cent of disasters, with tropical cyclones and floods the most common. Hydrological hazards also include droughts, heatwaves and storms.

However, geological hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis and soil liquefaction claimed the most casualties. These hazards accounted for only 3 per cent of the total 2,426 disasters recorded until mid-December, but they claimed 3,969 lives.

The figures do not include casualties from the recent Sunda Strait tsunami, which was triggered by Anak Krakatau's volcanic eruption and underwater landslide, which hit Banten and Lampung last Saturday. The latest death toll was 426, with dozens still missing.

Earthquakes in Central Sulawesi and Lombok caused the most deaths. On Aug 6, a 7-magnitude earthquake struck Lombok, a popular tourist destination. The disaster took a toll on the island's economy, while residential housing was the worst-hit.

In North Lombok regency, which experienced the worst damage because of its proximity to the quake's epicentre, nearly 75 per cent of the homes were destroyed. Many houses collapsed because they were not quake-proof, burying people under the wreckage.


A tremor-triggered tsunami killed the most people when it struck in Palu on Sept 28. The waves hit when hundreds of people had gathered near the sea for an annual cultural festival.

Tsunami expert Abdul Muhari said Indonesia lagged behind other countries in building and maintaining a tsunami early warning system. He added that in Japan, which also deals with frequent earthquakes and tsunamis, one to five seismographs were placed in each sub-district, with the addition of tsunami detector buoys in its waters.

After the Palu tsunami, Mr Sutopo revealed that real-time tsunami detection equipment in Indonesia was almost non-existent.

"No tsunami detection buoys are in operation in our country right now, which are necessary to detect such waves early. Most of them are broken because of vandalism," he said.

The same concern resurfaced after the Sunda Strait tsunami.

After news of the tsunami broke, debate over whether it was a tsunami or a tidal wave dominated social media.

BMKG initially announced there had been a tidal wave in the Sunda Strait, refuting claims of a tsunami. Only hours later did the agency confirm that a tsunami had taken place, and that it was likely to have been caused by the combination of a high tidal wave from the full moon and an underwater landslide.

BMKG also said in its statement that seismometers around the Anak Krakatau volcano had been damaged by an eruption. Anak Krakatau has been active since June.

Mr Sutopo said there was no warning of the Sunda Strait tsunami because it was not caused by a tectonic earthquake, saying that Indonesia was not equipped with an early warning system for a volcanic tremor-triggered tsunami.

The series of natural disasters is a sobering reality for Indonesia, which is keen to promote its tourist attractions to boost its economy.

Lombok and Bali suffered significant losses after the multiple earthquakes and eruptions from Mount Agung between 2017 and 2018.

The Sunda Strait tsunami struck the coasts of Banten and Lampung, popular tourist destinations during the holiday season.

The Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation Centre had on Nov 19 cautioned tourism management groups and local administrations about the increasing activity of 20 volcanoes across the country.

Anak Krakatau is under 24-hour observation, along with Mount Sinabung and Mount Siputan, both in North Sumatra.

The central authorities have forecast that hydrometeorological hazards would remain the most likely natural disasters to happen next year.

"The peak of the rainy season is to happen in January next year," Mr Willem said. "There may be no strong El Nino and La Nina for next year, so the rainy and dry seasons would be pretty much normal."

With the legislative and presidential elections slated for April, Mr Willem said the disaster management agency was prepared to minimise the impact of any natural events, particularly during key dates.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2018, with the headline 'Indonesia's deadliest year in more than a decade'. Print Edition | Subscribe