Up­hill task

Ex­perts find that it takes some con­vinc­ing for Mer­api res­i­dents to heed warn­ings of the vol­cano’s dan­ger.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT - by SARAH diLOReNZO

Ex­perts find that it takes some con­vinc­ing for Mer­api res­i­dents to heed warn­ings of the vol­cano’s dan­ger.

THE threat from more than 100 vol­canos that dot In­done­sia is im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict with any pre­ci­sion. But that’s not the hard­est part of the job, says Surono, the head of the coun­try’s mon­i­tor­ing agency. The hard­est part is get­ting the mes­sage out.

In the days be­fore In­done­sia’s most volatile vol­cano awak­ened from four years of dor­mancy last month, Surono said he saw in­di­ca­tions that Mount Mer­api had more en­ergy pent up in it than he had ever seen be­fore.

But it was not form­ing its typ­i­cal lava dome, a glow­ing red cap that can be seen for kilo­me­tres as magma builds at the sum­mit. In other words, from the vil­lages that cling to its slopes, Mer­api didn’t look like it was go­ing to blow.

On Oct 26, a day af­ter Surono put it on its high­est alert, Mer­api erupted. Ten days later, it ex­panded its reach, un­leash­ing a surge of gas, rock and other de­bris to­talling 50 mil­lion cu­bic me­tres, the largest ex­plo­sion in a cen­tury. More than 300 peo­ple were killed. If Surono knew that the biggest erup­tion in re­cent me­mory was im­mi­nent, why did the Nov 5 blast catch many off guard, cut­ting peo­ple down with sear­ing gases as they tried to flee, char­ring them in their sleep and de­stroy­ing whole vil­lages?

The fault seems to lie less in fail­ures of pre­dic­tion than in fail­ures of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Vil­lagers who have lived on the vol­cano all their lives, whose par­ents lived on the vol­cano, too, feel they know it.

And they are, in fact, gifted at read­ing vis­ual changes in the moun­tain, a tech­nique also used by sci­en­tists, said Radan Sukhyar, head of the Ge­ol­ogy Agency and Surono’s boss. For ex­am­ple, they may take vol­canic rock lit­ter­ing a vil­lage to mean a blast is com­ing, and an in­flux of mon­keys and deer from their homes at the peak to mean the area is safe.

But the vil­lagers also be­lieve in some­thing more ephemeral, a sixth sense that may lull them into be­liev­ing the moun­tain can be un­der­stood and tamed. Surono calls this feel­ing “voodoo”, a mix of an­i­mism and the Hindu be­liefs that ex­isted be­fore the rise of Is­lam in In­done­sia. He says the job was much more straight­for­ward when he spoke to peo­ple liv­ing around Mount Sinabung, a vol­cano that erupted in Septem­ber on Su­ma­tra is­land.

“With Mer­api, I must talk about na­ture and cul­ture,” he said. “This is not easy.”

Sedyo Wiy­ono, for in­stance, blamed the lat­est erup­tion on hu­man fail­ing and sug­gested that co­ex­is­tence with the moun­tain may no longer be pos­si­ble.

“I think Mount Mer­api is no longer friendly to those of us who were born and raised at its foot. Maybe it was our sins that made the vol­cano so an­gry,” said the 62-year-old, whose son was killed in one of the blasts.

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing is key for any ge­ol­o­gist, ac­cord­ing to Peter Fren­zen, who works for the For­est Ser­vice at Mount St He­lens, whose 1980 erup­tion was the dead­li­est in US his­tory. In the United States, he said, sci­en­tists fret about sound­ing an alarm too of­ten or too high be­cause it can make their warn­ings back­ground noise.

But sci­en­tists in Alaska and the Pa­cific North­west mostly deal with the evac­u­a­tion of vis­i­tor cen­tres or mon­i­tor­ing posts. In In­done­sia, by con­trast, peo­ple live on vol­canos, where thou­sands of years of erup­tions have fer­tilised the slopes, mak­ing the soil some of the rich­est in a coun­try packed with peo­ple to feed and a paucity of land with which to do it.

Since Mer­api be­gan its lat­est se­ries of erup­tions, more than 300,000 have been driven from their homes, liv­ing in cramped evac­u­a­tion cen­tres at the foot of the vol­cano.

As a re­sult, Surono and his team need to make fine dis­tinc­tions: 16km from the crater is too close, but 21km is safe. They want to keep ev­ery­one out of harm’s way, but they also have to keep as many peo­ple in their homes as pos­si­ble.

And the longer they keep peo­ple from their homes with­out an erup­tion, the more their cred­i­bil­ity is called into ques­tion, the more their fore­casts be­come back­ground noise.

“I try to speak with peo­ple. I try to touch their hearts. I try to touch their heads – with log­i­cal think­ing,” Surono said.

He tries to ex­plain as sim­ply as pos­si­ble why he thinks the vol­cano is dan­ger­ous. The night he raised Mer­api’s alert to its high­est level, he called all the chiefs of the nearby vil­lages and begged them to get their res­i­dents out when the evac­u­a­tion or­der came. But Surono is not the only one talk­ing. For in­stance, there is Marid­jan, the sul­tanap­pointed keeper of Mer­api’s spir­its, who fre­quently re­fused to evac­u­ate his home when or­dered and whose fol­low­ers some­times stayed be­hind with him. He died, at 83, in the first of the lat­est se­ries of blasts from Mer­api. A dozen bod­ies were found with his, 8km from the sum­mit.

Then there are the neigh­bours. Sam­i­nah, who lived with her hus­band Su­darjo, and his mother in a vil­lage on the slopes, was as­sured by a neigh­bour be­fore the Nov 5 erup­tion that there was plenty of time to run away if any­thing hap­pened.

There was in­deed time for Sam­i­nah and her hus­band to flee, but when Su­darjo went back for his mother, the gases rac­ing down the moun­tain seared 60% of his body, land­ing him in a burn ward, cov­ered from head to toe with bandages, barely breath­ing on a ven­ti­la­tor.

An­other self-ap­pointed ex­pert is Sri Hariyanto, whom any­one tuned to ra­dio Mer­api Baler­ante will hear giv­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to evac­u­ate and de­scrip­tions of the state of the vol­cano. Hariyanto is not a vol­ca­nol­o­gist but runs a com­mu­nity out­reach pro­gramme to ed­u­cate peo­ple on the dan­ger of vol­canos.

Dur­ing the cur­rent cri­sis, he took to try­ing to pre­dict the moun­tain’s moves him­self. He speaks with so much author­ity, it takes time to re­alise he has no more train­ing in read­ing vol­cano be­hav­iour than the vil­lagers who gazed out at Mer­api on Oct 25 and didn’t be­lieve it was about to erupt.

Surono said he is happy to have lo­cal groups dis­sem­i­nate in­for­ma­tion about Mer­api, but he wants them to dis­sem­i­nate the sci­en­tists’ in­for­ma­tion. Hariyanto, on the other hand, be­lieves 30 years lived in the moun­tain’s shadow gives him a spe­cial con­nec­tion to Mer­api. “Ev­ery­one has in­tu­ition; I use it,” he said.

Surono tries to out­line the risks as best he can and plead with peo­ple to lis­ten. But his boss won­ders if more dras­tic ac­tion might be taken. Sukhyar said ex­perts are con­sid­er­ing rec­om­mend­ing that some vil­lages not be re­built at all.

“Ev­ery vol­cano has places where peo­ple live, but we have to ad­mit that we live in places with the po­ten­tial for dan­ger,” he said. “We must ad­mit that, at some vol­canos, the threat is quite open-ended.” – AP

Not peo­ple-friendly: A farmer walks on his corn field cov­ered in vol­canic ash from Mount Mer­api’s erup­tion in Mun­ti­lan, In­done­sia, re­cently.

Warn­ing: Pre­dict­ing when a vol­cano will erupt is not the hard­est part of the job, says Surono, the head of the coun­try’s mon­i­tor­ing agency. The hard­est part is get­ting the mes­sage out.

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