Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits locations damaged by the earthquake in Petobo, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia on October 03, 2018. Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP/Eko Siswono Toyudho
Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits locations damaged by the earthquake in Petobo, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia on October 03, 2018. Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP/Eko Siswono Toyudho

Battered by two earthquake-triggered disasters in quick succession, another volcanic eruption and a currency that keeps heading south, luck seems to have deserted Indonesian President Joko Widodo just when he needed it the most.

Still recovering from a series of deadly quakes on the Nusa Tenggara island of Lombok, his government is struggling to respond to a devastating September 28 tsunami in Central Sulawesi, which has claimed more than 1,550 lives and left 200,000 survivors in dire need of assistance.

The October 3 eruption of North Sulawesi’s Soputan volcano has only added to the seismic scare, while the day before the Indonesian currency breached the 15,000 rupiah to the dollar mark, easily the lowest it has been since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

None of this is what Widodo needs seven months out from the April 27, 2019 presidential election, where his chances of winning a second term are increasingly being linked to economic issues and now perhaps to his government’s handling of natural disasters as well.

His predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s luck with natural disasters was much worse. His administration was hit by the 2004 Aceh tsunami disaster within months of him taking office, only to be followed by the 2005-2006 Nias, Jogjakarta and Pangandaran quakes and tsunamis which together killed 174,000 people.

It has been 14 years since the Aceh tragedy, but with the country’s early-warning system shockingly inoperable and the military still short of a heavy-lift capability, Indonesia appears to be in no better position to deal with a natural disaster-caused tragedy on an outlying island than it was then.

French members of the International Emergency Firefighters prepare to enter the badly damaged Mercure hotel for search and rescue operations in Palu in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi on October 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Strange then that it took the government four days to decide whether it needed international assistance when Yudhoyono, far more experienced in foreign affairs and in operating on a global stage, made that same decision literally within hours of learning the full gravity of the Aceh disaster.

Widodo authorized the acceptance of outside aid on October 2, a day after he toured the stricken city of Palu which took the full brunt of a five-meter-high wave that had earlier swept through the district center of Donggala and coastal villages further north that were closer to the epicenter of the 7.5 quake.

It is a rule of thumb that any major tremor should be a warning to head for higher ground in coastal areas. Yet in a startling sign that past lessons have not been learned, scores of strollers along Palu’s foreshore ignored shouts from people in nearby buildings as the killer wave bore down on them.

According to official accounts, the post-quake tsunami alert was only lifted at 6.36 pm after the last of three tsunami waves had struck Palu – all within eight to 11 minutes of the quake. But that counts for little when survivors reported hearing no sirens and receiving no text messages.

Worse, officials were forced to acknowledge that Indonesia’s early-warning system of seismological sensors, buoys and tidal gauges has been out of commission since 2012 — only four years after it was installed — because of vandalism and a lack of maintenance.

Without the necessary resources, infrastructure or emergency equipment, the Yudhoyono government was also initially overwhelmed by the scale of the calamity, which killed 167,500 people in Aceh alone. But the politics were different then, too.

With a massive global outpouring of assistance, money and sympathy, Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla saw the death and destruction as a chance to win back the goodwill of the people of Aceh, who had suffered through a bitter 25-year armed struggle for independence.

Only 11 days later, Yudhoyono had not only cleared the way for foreign military assistance, notably from the United States, Australia, Singapore and Japan, but had called an emergency regional conference to coordinate aid and relief efforts.

In comparison, aid has been generally slow to reach Palu because supply convoys carrying much-needed fuel, food and water take up to 17 hours to drive from the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar, the nearest major transportation hub.

If anyone understands what needs to be done it is Sulawesi-born Kalla, now serving a second vice presidential term with Widodo.

Earthquake survivors scuffle to get live chickens being distributed from a police truck outside a makeshift camp in Palu, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

Yet despite local hospitals being overwhelmed, with patients lying out in the open in the blazing sun, he rejected the offer of a naval hospital ship from US President Donald Trump, perhaps offended by the American leader’s seeming off-hand humanitarian gesture.

News agency reports have noted Widodo’s government refused foreign assistance in the wake of the earthquake that devastated parts of the eastern island of Lombok in July.

Widodo’s denials harked to Kalla’s politicized claim during the Aceh disaster that the San Diego-based hospital ship Mercy had only tended to five patients after replacing the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, which treated 2,200 patients during the early days of that relief effort.

The US 7th Fleet said the Mercy handled 17,500 patients in Aceh and also on a later humanitarian tour of the eastern island of Alor and neighboring East Timor before returning in early April 2005 to help victims of another major quake on Nias island, southeast of Aceh.

Indonesia’s national pride clearly influences disaster decision-making to some degree, but Aceh’s experience and a string of other natural disasters has shown that it also pays to be selective in deciding how the international community can and should help.

The current disaster has underscored the need for more transport aircraft and heavy-lift helicopters to bring in fuel, mobile desalination plants, water purifiers and heavy equipment, in additional to food and medicine, to help in relief operations.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (2nd R) surveys earthquake-tsunami damage in Palu, Central Sulawesi. Photo: AFP/Indonesian Presidential Palace

The Indonesian military’s 20 C-130s Hercules, an equal number of locally-built Casa-295 and 235 cargo planes and 40 transport helicopters are not enough to deal with a disaster of Palu’s magnitude, even if only half were serviceable and available.

As the focus gradually shifts to longer-term recovery efforts, the government and international agencies are already having to confront the cost of rebuilding in both Central Sulawesi and Lombok when money from the state budget is in short supply amid rising financial problems accentuated by a plummeting currency.

The World Bank is offering US$100 million in existing loans for immediate use in Central Sulawesi and another US$500 million in emergency lending, which would be available in the next three months to finance community-driven housing, neighborhood reconstruction and basic infrastructure repairs.

With a clear and growing need for major improvements in disaster risk management and emergency response capabilities, officials are also exploring the possibility of issuing so-called “catastrophic bonds,” risk-linked securities where the issuer pays the interest but only gets the capital in the event of a disaster.

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