Thursday, July 20, 2006

Moral Responsibility and Tsunami

On Monday, 17 July 2006, tsunami struck the southern coastal lines of Java Island. After a 7.7 magnitude earthquake that centered in the seabed of the Indian Ocean rocked the capital city of Jakarta, a small but devastating tsunami struck the southern coastal lines of Java, killing more than 500 people and injuring many others as well as devastating the livelihood and properties of the people living in the areas.

Immediately after learning about this natural disaster from various media, I wrote in my weblog that "... the authority immediately issued a tsunami warning to the people in the coastal areas, asking them to leave their homes for higher ground for any eventual tsunami."

However, I made a mistake when I wrote about this government's immediate response about any eventual tsunami that might strike the coastal areas after the earthquake that reached as far as the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. The fact is that it was the Indonesian Transport Minister, Hatta Rajasa, who issued an instruction to the people in the coastal areas already being hit by the tsunami to retreat to higher ground for their safety.

Neither he nor the Indonesian government issued this instruction before the tsunami occurred. Instead, his instruction came when a tsunami has already hit the southern coastal areas of Java and has taken the lives and properties of the people there.

Two days later, it was reported in various media that the warning about any possible tsunami issued by the Japanese Meteorological Department and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii soon after the 7.7 magnitude quake had actually come to be known by the Minister of Research and Technology, Kusmayanto Kadiman, through an SMS 20 minutes well before the actual tsunami occurred. However, upon receiving this message chose to remain silent and played down the threat. He only publicly revealed about the SMS and the warning he received well after the tragedy had struck.

The government knew about the danger but chose to remain silent. No official warning issued to the public. The officials said that they were too busy monitoring the aftershocks of this 7.7 magnitude quake.

For the record, no tsunami warning system has been set up for the southern coast of Java. An Indonesian warning system was supposed to be up and running by now after the 2004 tsunami, the worst on record, but it has stalled. No clear reason given by the government.

Had there been a tsunami warning system running in the areas hit by the quake, and had the Indonesian Minister who knew about the danger of tsunami informed the public and asked them to immediately leave for higher ground for their safety, the huge human and material loss due to this natural disaster could have been avoided.

Similarly, upon answering reporters' questions as to why no warning was issued on Monday, Vice President Jusuf Kalla claimed there was no need to issue such warning because most people had fled inland after the earthquake, fearing a tsunami. On the contrary, the strong quake felt in Jakarta was relatively negligible in these regions. Reports in various media say that only several persons in the coastal areas felt a slight tremor.

Furthermore, no one in the southern coastal region said that there was a mass movement of people to higher ground before the tsunami. Only some residents and tourists in the area recognized the signs of tsunami when the sea level receded suddenly and the wall of water approaching. They immediately fled to higher ground for safety. It was a purely natural instinct of saving oneself from danger and not from any tsunami warning issued by the government that minimized the number of the victims. But yet this natural signs and human instinct failed to save many others.

This government’s inaction and reluctance to inform the public about the imminent danger of tsunami, in my opinion, makes the government highly and morally responsible for this natural disaster. Aceh’s tsunami should have become the best teacher and experience to avoid similar catastrophe in the archipelago. But it seemed that the government is very slow to react. They played down the warning of an imminent danger of tsunami by “being busy monitoring the aftershocks” and claiming that “there was no need to inform the public believing that most people had fled inland after the earthquake, fearing a tsunami”.

Thus, in my opinion, the Research and Technology Minister, or even the Vice President Kalla, should willingly resign on moral ground. He failed to do his job and the public had to pay for it with their lives and the loss of properties. Had the government acted immediately and responsibly, the huge loss of human lives and properties caused by the tsunami could have been minimized. The government as a whole has to be held morally responsible for this tsunami disaster.

This post was published with some cuts and editings in The Jakarta Post on Saturday, 22 July 2006. The title of the published form was "Govt at Fault in Tsunami".

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