Children of earthquake victims walk past a collapsed house at Cugenang village in Cianjur, West Java on December 1, 2022, ten days after a 5.6-magnitude earthquake left 335 people dead. (Photo: Aditya Aji / AFP)

The Cianjur Earthquake Reveals the Inadequacy of Disaster Resilience in Indonesia

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The aftermath of the Cianjur earthquake which claimed more than 330 lives calls for Jakarta to seriously review its disaster reduction and prevention efforts. Much more needs to be done to reduce future losses.

On 21 November 2022, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake shook Cianjur, West Java, with tremours felt as far away as in Jakarta (about 107 kilometres away) and in Tangerang. As of early December 2022, the quake had not only destroyed buildings, houses, and infrastructure but also claimed at least 334 lives, wounded 593 others, and made 114,683 people homeless overnight. According to the Meteorological, Climatological, and Geophysical Agency (BMKG), the quake was a shallow or surface quake, which did not need to be too powerful to be destructive. The level of destruction was mainly because the infrastructure in the Cianjur area and its residents were not disaster ready.

In the wake of the quake, many Indonesians recalled earlier warnings that someday, similar risks might befall Jakarta. In June 2022, Kompas reported on the Baribis fault that traverses the densely populated South Jakarta suburbs. In 2018, tirto.id had reported on the same theme using the metaphor of a deadly “monster” beneath Jakarta, but this received little attention. More recently, Jakarta’s Disaster Agency warned that ten areas in South and East Jakarta are at high earthquake risk. In the most vulnerable zone, there are commercial buildings and residences – the tallest is a 50-storey tower. It is easy to see that a midsized or larger earthquake in Jakarta would wreak much more havoc than in the Cianjur disaster. 

Despite these warnings, neither the national nor metropolitan Jakarta governments seem to have taken serious action in earthquake prevention, not even issuing orders to retrofit at-risk buildings. 

When opening the seventh session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (GPDRR) in Bali on 25 May 2022, President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) stated that that Indonesia was committed to and serious about disaster risk reduction (DRR). However, Widodo’s administration has not put DRR and mitigation efforts in the mainstream of the country’s infrastructural development policy. 

This is despite the existence of the Sendai Declaration in 2015 and the Sendai Framework 2015-2030, which outlined DRR priorities for countries at risk of natural hazards, in the wake of Japan’s tragic March 2011 tsunami disaster. The framework underlines seven priorities for DRR and emphasises that, if DRR were properly integrated into policy, governments would be able to reduce existing disaster risks and manage residual risks.

Today, disaster public literacy in Indonesia is minimal. The Indonesian government, unlike in Japan or other earthquake-prone countries, has not properly conducted public education on the risks and impacts of naturally occurring disasters and what to do when such hazards occur. For the Cianjur earthquake, there is no evidence that the local government had conducted public education programmes on the risks for locals living near the Cimandiri fault line. It is the same for metropolitan Jakarta. 

It is this author’s view that such a lack of disaster literacy applies to Indonesia’s elites, which includes its decision-makers and public officials. How the national government formulates its policies on development, urban construction projects, and other infrastructural undertakings does not seem to reflect any understanding of the need to follow existing global standards for DRR. This is particularly the case for the construction of housing, office buildings, and even critical public structures and facilities like ports and bridges. 

Regulations certainly exist: from 2011 to 2022 Indonesia issued some 23 disaster-ready National Standards (SNI). In 2019, the government launched SNI 1726 (2019) for building and non-building infrastructure for earthquake resistance, but somehow these standards are not applied consistently.

There are two main factors that may explain such inconsistencies. First, perhaps policymakers, public officials, and the business sector have dismissed disaster readiness as a cumbersome requirement for most key infrastructural projects. Technical specifications are often neglected due to conflicts of interest involving investors and public officials or even outright corruption. While media reports on preventable disaster losses that might be attributed to corruption are rarely found, one case made its way to the headlines. A 4.5 billion rupiah (about US$289,000) corruption scandal occurred in the procurement and installation of wave breakers in Ranolapo, South Minahasa, in the province of North Sulawesi. The village head was warned not to report the case, but he changed his mind when a disaster hit the shore of Ranolapo in 2016, causing casualties in his village. 

Although there is a formal requirement for a Strategic Environmental Assessment (KLHS), where proposed development sites must be analysed for natural disaster or hazard risks, the reality is often different. 

Either these assessments are done post hoc, to legitimise projects already agreed upon by the key stakeholders, like in the case of Indonesia’s proposed location for the new capital Nusantara, or the KLHS appears to be frequently overruled by political elites, business interests, or even government officials. One infamous example was of Kendeng karst for the cement industry, where the Central Java Provincial Government disobeyed the KHLS recommendation to mandate that the state-owned Cement Indonesia factory change the location for a lime mining project. 

The situation is complicated further because when credible, science-based warnings of disaster occur, the government response has mostly been that of denial or avoidance.

The situation is complicated further because when credible, science-based warnings of disaster occur, the government response has mostly been that of denial or avoidance. One notorious case was when a group of scientists from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) published a report in Nature, outlining the possibility of a megathrust earthquake and potential tsunamis south of Java. This article attracted much attention but, instead of using the momentum for proper public education on the risk of earthquakes in the country’s most populated island, the government’s main message was for people not to panic.

One theory in disaster planning and control is that public panic could lead to social unrest and even chaos if it cannot be contained. The Cianjur earthquake was a wake-up call for Jakarta and Indonesia at large: to build up the capacity of the government and its people in disaster resilience. 

By not seriously committing to a nationwide DRR programme, the Jokowi administration might be choosing the appearance of stability over honestly recognising and preparing the population for future disasters. This is short-sighted as the potential loss of lives and treasure in the next naturally occurring disaster is only going to increase, not fade, given climate change and its impact on the largest archipelago in the “Ring of Fire”. 

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Yanuar Nugroho is Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.