Indonesia. Mount Sinabung’s first eruption in 400 years has highlighted the urgent need for authorities to improve disaster preparedness, experts say.
“This is a challenge,” said Wisnu Wijaya, director of disaster risk reduction at the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB). “We should study patterns of volcanic activity so that we can draw up guidelines to anticipate future disasters.”
The eruption of Sinabung, in North Sumatra’s Karo district, took the country by surprise and forced more than 27,000 villagers to seek refuge in government-run shelters.
It first erupted on Aug. 29, then in the early hours of Sept. 3 it churned into action again in an eruption larger and louder than the earlier ones. On Sept. 7, it had its most powerful eruption yet, spewing ash as high as 5,000 meters into the air.
Even though it has the largest number of active volcanos on earth — a total of 129 — and a history of devastating volcanic disasters, Indonesia has very few scientists monitoring these potential hazards.
Disaster risk reduction became more of an issue after the 2004 tsunami, but a lack of official awareness of the importance of volcano monitoring and the potential link between eruptions and earthquakes persists, said Wahyu Triyoso, a geophysicist at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).
“A major earthquake like that in Aceh may have triggered a volcanic surge by waking up dormant volcanoes,” Wahyu said, referring to the 9.1-magnitude quake that triggered the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 170,000 people in Aceh alone.
Wisnu said the Sinabung eruption should serve as a wake-up call for authorities to step up the monitoring of volcanoes around the islands.
BNPB chairman Syamsul Maarif said a 2007 law on disaster mitigation required every region to map its vulnerability to disasters, but that only a few had complied.
“We keep pushing the local governments to do it,” Syamsul said. “When a disaster happens, they can’t wait for the Jakarta-based BNPB team to arrive there in a short time. They should be able to help themselves until more help comes.”
Indonesia is a seismically charged region because of its location on the so-called Ring of Fire — a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.
It has recorded some of the largest eruptions in history.