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Indonesia's tsunami warning blamed as death toll reaches 1,200

A catalog of errors, largely due to limited funds, seen behind Palu devastation

JAKARTA -- Indonesia's failure to warn its people of the tsunami that hit Sulawesi after an earthquake on Friday is being blamed for the rising death toll that has now reached 1,234.

As information from previously inaccessible areas starts to trickle in and the number of casualties continues to climb, government agencies are lamenting a lack of funding to maintain an early tsunami warning system installed after the devastating wave on Boxing Day in 2004. That disaster, on the western coast of Aceh Province in northern Sumatra, killed 226,000 people from 14 countries.

In the aftermath, 22 buoys were deployed around Indonesia as part of efforts to detect any huge waves and to sound an early warning to coastal residents.

"The buoys have been ineffective since 2012," said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesperson for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, or BNPB. Nugroho said the buoys had been vandalized -- possibly due to fishermen tying their boats to them and others stealing components like lights and sensors to sell on the black market -- and pinpointed insufficient funding as the main reason.

"Since 2012 not one has been operating, even though they are needed for early warning," he said. "Limited funds were even reduced, making maintenance difficult."

Indonesia's attempt at installing a new and more sophisticated tsunami warning system was also hampered by a lack of capital. A team of U.S. and Indonesian institutions had tried to implement a system that would recognize changes underwater and transmit the information to the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics, or BMKG.

A ship is left stranded days after the earthquake and tsunami hit Wani, Donggala, in Central Sulawesi. (Photo by Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja)   © Reuters

According to CNBC, which interviewed Louise Comfort, a professor and director of the Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh that was part of the initiative, her team successfully tested the project in 2016. However, a later funding plan that was approved to install the prototype "was not sufficient to cover the cost."

Indonesia's state budget for the BNPB reached its peak in 2015, at 3.3 trillion rupiah ($219.4 million), but has since gradually been reduced. The BNPB's budget this year stands at a meager 742 billion rupiah, a near 80% drop from 2015.

"Disaster funding continues to decline every year. The threat of [natural] disasters has increased, the incidence of disasters increased, [but] the budget of BNPB actually dropped," Nugroho said. "This affects mitigation efforts. Installation of early warning tools is limited by a continuously reduced budget."

Indonesia sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, where 90% of all earthquakes strike, and 75% of all active volcanoes are located.

Information from the buoys and the new tsunami detection system would have been critical in BMKG making a call on when to retract any early warnings. The agency has come under fire for removing the warning too quickly, leading to the high number of deaths in Central Sulawesi Province.

Daryono, head of the earthquake and tsunami information center at the BMKG, said with the buoys damaged, the agency has installed 130 tide gauges across Indonesia for early detection of any tsunami. But a tide gauge in Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi and one of the worst affected areas, did not work when the tsunami struck, likely because electricity was cut off shortly after the initial quake.

The agency had to rely on data from the nearest available tide gauge in Mamuju, a city 200 km to the south of Palu, where only a 6 cm wave was detected.

The BMKG decided to lift the tsunami warning around 30 minutes after it was issued at around 5:07 p.m. on Friday. The agency denied ending the warning too early, as Daryono said "digital traces" showed the tsunami struck Palu before the warning was lifted.

"The tide gauges had never failed us before. They were always accurate -- international standard for early tsunami detection. But we do have to evaluate the system and make sure there will be no more electricity failures for the gauges following earthquakes," Daryono said.

The decision played a part in the BNPB releasing an initial statement saying there was no tsunami, which it had to quickly retract as a flurry of tsunami videos were uploaded on popular social media sites like Twitter. The waves reached as high as 7 meters in some areas.

Even the tsunami warnings that were issued did not reach many of the intended recipients. Villagers were supposed to receive text messages warning them, but those failed to arrive. Communications Minister Rudiantara blamed the power failure as a result of the quake, which rendered base stations for telecommunications inoperable.

An official at Indonesia's anti-graft agency said it would look into the matter to see if corruption played a part in the government's failure to apply the proper tsunami detection system.

"The early warning system for tsunami didn't work [in Central Sulawesi]; that's interesting. Why?" said Saut Situmorang, deputy chief of the Corruption Eradication Commission. "Also, if I'm not mistaken, there should have been an SMS blast when something like that happens, but there was no SMS blast, or there was but slow. We'll see how these equipment came to be nonfunctional."

Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, a senior earthquake geologist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI, pointed to the Widodo administration's failure to include natural disaster mitigation in its national priority programs.

Until the Lombok earthquakes in August, which killed over 500 people, there had been no major natural disaster incident since the Mentawai earthquake and tsunami in 2010, which killed at least 400 people. This meant that disaster mitigation had fallen off the radar of the government and lawmakers.

"That's what I regret from the current administration," Natawidjaja said in an earlier interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. "Disaster mitigation has not been made a national priority -- despite the potential huge damages that may be caused."

He said mitigation should include more comprehensive research to identify and assess subduction zones and fault lines across the Indonesian archipelago that may potentially cause damaging earthquakes and tsunamis.

Building disaster awareness among the public is another area to improve -- he said most Indonesians still do not know where to go or what to do when an earthquake or tsunami strikes. Earthquake and tsunami drills were conducted after the 2004 Aceh tsunami in limited places but have since been practically abandoned, save for a few rare occasions, such as when fairly strong quakes from nearby regions were felt in Jakarta.

"Drills should be conducted often," Natawidjaja said. "If it's done just once, it's useless."

Nikkei staff writer Bobby Nuguroho contributed to this article.

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