Latest Volcanic Eruption Shows Challenge to Indonesia From Its ‘Ring of Fire’

By Kanupriya Kapoor 13 August 2013

JAKARTA — A deadly lava flow at the weekend that killed five people and sent hundreds fleeing illustrates the formidable challenges Indonesia faces in coping with the constant threat of eruptions from the world’s largest number of active volcanoes.

Mount Rokatenda at the eastern end of the archipelago off the island of Flores, on Saturday became the fifth serious volcanic eruption in just three years.

The most deadly in recent memory was Mount Merapi, near the densely populated city of Yogyakarta in central Java, which erupted in late 2010, killing over 350 people.

“Observation centers in Indonesia have equipment that can detect an increase in geophysical or geochemical activity. So, if there are increasing tremors, it might be a sign of an imminent eruption,” said Dr. Agung Harijoko, associate professor of volcanology at Gajah Mada University in central Java, Indonesia’s main island.

“But what is worrying is the capability and logistics to deal with such disasters, especially outside Java. The infrastructure isn’t very good and residents need to be alerted and educated better.”

One of the world’s fastest growing economies, Indonesia straddles the “Pacific ring of fire” with nearly 130 active volcanoes, more than any other country.

The Indonesian Red Cross said it was ready to dispatch medical assistance and supplies to victims of the latest eruption, but transportation to the tiny, remote island Palue was not readily available.

“We have some volunteers already on the ground, helping the military with the evacuation. And we have food, blankets, and masks ready to go but … transportation is hard to find,” said Aulia Arriani, spokesperson for the Indonesian Red Cross.

“Inter-island transport is almost non-existent there because it’s a remote place, and the government has only provided a few ferries so far. We hope to start getting supplies there by Thursday.”

According to the US Geological Survey, the ring of fire where several tectonic plates meet and cause 90 percent of the world’s seismic activity, accounts for a constant stream of eruptions, earthquakes and tidal waves.

The largest volcanic eruption in modern history was recorded in 1883 when Mount Krakatau, located between Java and Sumatra, exploded into smaller islands, causing thousands of deaths and shock waves that were recorded around the globe. A successor, “Child of Krakatau,” has grown into a small island in the same area, sending thick plumes of smoke and occasional bursts of rock into the air.

In 2004, Indonesia bore the brunt of casualties and damage from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which killed over 250,000 people in several countries around the ocean’s rim.

Earthquakes are an almost daily event around the country. A 6.1 magnitude quake hit northern Sumatra last month, causing 35 deaths and significant damage to property.

Many farmers choose to live by volcanoes despite the associated risks because of the fertility of the soil and higher rainfall. According to the national disaster management agency, the government often does not have enough funds to relocate people who live in disaster-prone areas.

“On average we only see around two eruptions a year at the scale [of Mount Rokatenda],” Dr. Agung Harijoko said. “So you see people who want to live around volcanoes because they are willing to adapt to the circumstances because the soil is very fertile. … And there are other sociological reasons. People can have a sentimental attachment to the land or they have religious or mystical beliefs about the volcanoes.”