Indonesians put faith in disaster management
By Peter Gelling
Published: May 22, 2007
JAKARTA: In Indonesia, disasters are part of daily life.
Last year, an earthquake killed nearly 6,000 people; a volcanic eruption forced thousands to evacuate; and a gas drilling company caused an underground mud volcano to erupt, costing thousands their homes. Since then, there has been a tsunami, another destructive earthquake, countless mudslides, and floods that brought large parts of the capital to a standstill.
Despite this, the government until recently focused more on responding to emergencies than on preparing for them. In March, however, the Indonesian Parliament adopted long-anticipated legislation on disaster management, including measures first discussed more than two years ago, after the December 2004 tsunami that killed almost 170,000 people in Indonesia alone.
“It is landmark legislation,” said Puji Pujiono, an Indonesian disaster response expert and legislation adviser for the United Nations Development Program. “But the hard work begins now, with implementation and enforcement.”
The new law establishes a National Disaster Management Agency to coordinate efforts to reduce disaster risks in advance and to provide leadership during an emergency. The agency reports directly to the president and determines what constitutes a disaster. In such an event, it will be given extraordinary powers, including the right to tap resources, financial and material, from any other government ministry.
The law reaffirms that the government has an obligation to protect citizens, and provides a legal structure for victims of disaster to obtain assistance.
But while it is easily one of the most comprehensive disaster management laws in the region, it is not the first effort by Parliament to alter disaster management, and skeptics note that smaller, incremental measures adopted earlier were never fully enacted. Before 2005, when the first draft of the current law was filed in Parliament, the government had listed disaster management as priority 254 out of 260, suggesting, Pujiono said, that it “wouldn’t see the light of day.”
This time, a coalition of Indonesian community groups and disaster specialists is pushing hard to ensure that all provisions of the law are implemented as scheduled, by next year.
“The government must be done after one year,” said Hening Parlan, secretary general of the Indonesian Society for Disaster Management, one of the civic groups promoting the law. “Right now we are trying to educate people about the bill, so if the government doesn’t follow through, they can take action.”
Among those avidly following the law’s progress are victims of the mud volcano in east Java, most of whom have yet to receive compensation from the government or from the gas company.
“This bill will penalize anyone or anything that caused this disaster, even the government,” said Ambo Tang, an advocate for the mudflow victims. “That’s why this bill was made, to give victims the ability to sue anyone or anything that caused this disaster.”
Previously, there had been no formal legal basis for compensating the mudflow victims, but only a series of presidential decrees calling on the company to provide financial assistance, with little enforcement.
One of the most significant aspects of the new law consists of provisions for preventing as well as responding to emergencies. The law requires that a risk analysis be filed with the disaster agency before construction begins on any development project. It also creates regional command centers to deal with emergencies and calls for the training of residents of high-risk areas.
“Mount Merapi will always be there,” Pujiono said, referring to the highly unpredictable and dangerous volcano in heavily populated central Java. “We have to educate the people living there, create a plan to mitigate the risk.”
So far, supporters of the new law are encouraged that implementation is proceeding ahead of schedule. For example, the new disaster management agency is expected to be operating months before the deadline, according to Aisyah Hamid Baidlowi, a member of Parliament and head of the special committee for Indonesian disaster management.
“It is a race against time,” Pujiono said. “We must capitalize on the momentum we have now. We owe it to the people, to provide them protection.”