No End in Sight for Merapi’s Mud

By webadmin on 12:55 pm May 24, 2011
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Nivell Rayda & Candra Malik

Muntilan, Central Java. Rasminah has become increasingly paranoid over the past few months.

Although her home was spared in the cataclysmic eruptions of Mount Merapi last year, the 35-year-old mother of four is bracing for the prospect of yet another calamity from the surging waters of the Putih River.

“I can’t sleep at night, especially when it rains,” she said, adding that since early this month she had chosen to stay at a temporary shelter rather than the comfort of her home.

The raging waters have eroded much of the edge of the river, and Rasminah’s house, standing on the edge, is on the brink of falling off the 20-meter-tall cliff.

She said that the edge of the cliff used to be at least five meters away from her wall. Now the gap is just a few centimeters.

The Putih River is just one of four that run through the town of Muntilan, Central Java. Since January, all of them have swollen, drowning homes and farms and cutting off access from Magelang, Central Java, to neighboring Yogyakarta province.

The four rivers have been the source of worry for people living along the banks. Tons of volcanic ash that still covers much of the slopes and foothills of the Mountain of Fire has caused the soil to lose most of its absorbency with devastating results.

“This is where the water reaches,” Yusuf, a resident of adjacent Gempol village said, pointing to a line two meters high indicating the severity of the flooding.

Around 70 houses in Gempol were destroyed by a series of floods five months ago. Water and rocks traveling at 50 meters per second smashed into buildings and houses, ripping them off of their foundations. The worst-hit area is still covered in mud almost three meters thick, burying homes and farmland.

Surono, the head of the Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Agency (PVMBG), said the torrents of mud would continue to pose a serious threat for at least the next four years.

He said last year’s eruptions dumped an estimated 150 million cubic meters of ash and rock onto Merapi’s slopes. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of that remains on the mountain.

Heri Prawoto, head of the Magelang Disaster Mitigation Office, said that in Central Java, 106 homes had been destroyed by the mud flow, or lahar.

Another 323 have suffered heavy damage while 196 houses endured minor to moderate damage. He said 11 more houses, including Rasminah’s, were still at risk.

Seven months after Merapi began its biggest eruptions in a century, approximately 5,600 people still live in makeshift shelters in Central Java. The torrents of lahar have added another 3,400 evacuees.

But the impact of the volcanic mudflow is best observed in Yogyakarta, south of the mountain. The autonomous province is also where most of the rivers from Merapi flow to, with major waterways like the Code and Progo rivers overflowing with volcanic mud for the past several months.

The lahar carried by the rivers has damaged or destroyed 1,000 homes in March alone.

Disaster mitigation head Heri said that authorities had been trying to ease the problem by dredging the rivers and building levees. However, many of the levees have proven too weak in the face of the mud.

Yuni Rahayu, deputy head of Sleman district in Yogyakarta, said that the series of overflows had put a strain on an already depleting budget for disaster response. “The loss that we have experienced due to the eruption of Mount Merapi reached more than Rp 5 trillion [$585 million] and that is before the lahar disasters,” she said.

The deputy district head said that her administration had been so preoccupied in saving lives as calamities occurred one after another that major rehabilitation work had stalled. Fourteen major bridges, hundreds of school buildings and more than 2,600 houses had been destroyed by the recent disasters, she added.

In Muntilan, workers rush to build retainer walls to save homes from eroding soils while dams are constructed to control the flow of the four rivers that run through the town.

“We’re trying to finish the walls as fast as we can,” said Firman, a construction manager, pointing to the area where Rasminah’s house was located.

“Let’s hope there won’t be any more flood, because by the looks of it this cliff will surely erode. Just one major flood is enough to destroy this entire community.”