Karo/Jakarta. Beru Sembiring fled his home on the slopes of the erupting Mount Sinabung weeks ago because he was told the high level of volcanic ash in the air posed a serious threat to his health.
At the government-run shelter where he now stays, the ash still hangs heavy in the air outside, while inside the poorly ventilated building the air is stale and laden spores that have already sparked an outbreak of respiratory tract infections among some of the thousands of people crammed together here.
“We’re still breathing in the volcanic ash,” Beru, 50, says at the shelter in Los Tiga Binanga village in Karo district, North Sumatra. “Lots of people are coughing, and several have lung ailments.”
He says protective face masks were initially distributed among people coming to the shelter, but have not been handed out now for more than a week.
Officials say 16 people have died of illnesses here since the shelter was set up last November, when Sinabung roared into life after 400 years of lying dormant, but have given no details on the causes of death.
Clean water is also in short supply, with two 4,000-liter tanker trucks coming to the shelter daily — nowhere near enough, Beru says, to meet even the most basic needs of the shelter’s nearly 3,000 inhabitants, who also have to share all of four toilets.
Trash is piling up, with no one clearing it away, adding to the unhealthy miasma that shrouds the shelter.
Jhonson Tarigan, a spokesman for the government team overseeing the shelters set up for the Sinabung evacuees, says officials are doing all they can.
“We continue to provide the people with assistance, including reminding them not to return to their villages,” he says.
“We have medical personnel at every shelter. Individuals who require more serious treatment are being advised to go to a hospital, and the government will pay for their treatment.”
But Sastroy Bangun, 35, a local community youth leader, says the government is not doing enough.
“The water supply, for instance, is far from adequate. People are having to go days without washing,” he says.
“The sleeping conditions are very crowded. And there’s the constant problem of the ash in the air.”
Sastroy says he has seen at most eight medical workers at the Los Tiga Binanga, and contends that even a team of 10 would not suffice to deal with all the health complaints being reported daily.
With the eruptions dragging on for more than three months now, calls are mounting for the government to declare the situation a national disaster, which would compel it to give greater priority to relief efforts.
Marwan Jafar, the chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB) at the House of Representatives in Jakarta, said on Sunday that the government needed to show “national solidarity” with those displaced by Sinabung.
“For the short- and long-term interests of those affected, there’s no choice but for the government to declare the Sinabung crisis a national disaster,” he said.
He added that the largely agrarian community had seen its crops destroyed by the blanket of ash, depriving them of their livelihoods in addition to their homes.
Marwan accused the local and central governments of being more focused on politics than on the plight of the residents, given that the elections were just three months away.
“Officials at all levels of government have done an injustice to these people who are suffering,” he said. “They need concrete solutions, not false promises that are politically expedient.”