By Yvonne Chen Contributor December 13, 2010

Indonesia is a disaster-prone place. Given its history of inadequate preparation, the country needs a comprehensive evaluation of how it plans for and responds to the natural disasters that so frequently afflict it.

In Indonesia, twenty volcanoes are now on alert status across the country, forcing residents to take a hard look at what it means to live in the Pacific “Ring of Fire”. The media has reinforced the idea that Indonesia’s location on that ring is to blame for the magnitude of the disasters, and Indonesian politicians often emphasize the “natural” in natural disasters to excuse any lack of disaster management and deny the incompetency of the government. But the magnitudes of the earthquakes that occur in Indonesia are similar to those that occur in Japan and New Zealand. Neighboring countries such as Singapore have found ways to deal with climate-related disasters through natural resource management and urban planning.

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency reports that since its first eruption on October 17, the Mt. Merapi eruptions have killed 242 people in Indonesia and forced almost 400,000 to take refuge at 639 sheltering points created by the central government, in neighboring regencies. Fearful of their safety, Indonesians regularly discuss the disasters that have befallen their country, one after the other, beginning with the earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, the worst hit among several areas in different countries in December 2004.

There are two factors which make Indonesian natural disasters worse than others. First, the country is highly populated, so more people are likely to be affected. Java, Indonesia’s largest island is the most densely populated place in the world. The size of England, it holds a population close to that of the mainland United States.

Second and more importantly, Indonesia suffers from failures in disaster management. Poor emergency preparation increases the number of victims than would otherwise have suffered in the presence of better prevention. Despite the installation of tsunami early detection warning systems following the tsunami of 2004, the officials responsible were incapable of maintaining them. It is unfathomable that there would be no established early warning system in one of the islands that is most vulnerable to tsunamis. Consequently, over 400 people have been killed by high waves that submerged villages in the most recent tsunami in Mentawai (West Sumatra) in October 2010.

Despite the lack of proper disaster preparation, Indonesians do not always blame the central government. While teaching an English class at Udayana University in Denpasar, I asked students if disaster-related deaths were preventable. Skirting the question, their responses ranged from “The earth is no longer good.” to “It is a sign of the apocalypse.” Students could not remember ever practicing an evacuation drill. Few people seem to question the government’s responsibility to provide disaster evacuation procedures and infrastructure.

Some Indonesian disasters are human-induced and can be mitigated. Activists blame the flash floods in West Papua’s Wasior area in October, which claimed 111 lives, on the massive deforestation the converted land into mines and plantations. Though illegal, logging in West Papua’s natural forests has occurred at an alarming rate . The government has denied allegations that deforestation caused the floods, blaming it instead on rain-level intensity.

Post-disaster, the government’s lack of disaster management capacity has exacerbated the situation for survivors. Non-governmental organizations recently blamed Indonesia’s government for its sluggish relief efforts for Mentawai tsunami victims. “We don’t see the weather as an excuse for slow aid distribution,” says Khalid Saifullah, coordinator for Koalisi Lumbung Derma, a charity coalition. “The main reasons are weak coordination and the lack of alternatives for operations in the field during extreme weather.”

President Susilo Bambang Yudhono wants to avoid another high death count repeat in West Sumatra after the tsunamis of 2004 and 2010, and new government plans propose the permanent removal of residents from tsunami-prone areas. However, the government plan would be difficult given the customary communities that exist in Mentawai and elsewhere in the country.

In the Mt. Merapi volcano camps, capacity is ten times larger than expected. As the number of evacuees climbed to 283,000 on November 8, food, drinking water, and health care were needed in addition to public bathing and toilet facilities. Some of the several thousand who are packed into Yogyakarta’s Maguwharjo Stadium to facilitate distribution efforts are suffering from depression and complain about the lack of privacy.

Indonesians should hold their leaders more accountable and not settle for excuses that scapegoat the weather or fate. There must be an evaluation of the present disaster management systems and improvements must be made so that hundreds of people do not die as a result of every natural disaster.

This photo is courtesy of the author, Yvonne Chen.