P!N Points: Indonesia faces many natural threats – 600 Tsunamis and volcanoes add to season’s storm in island nation

Western media has paid significant attention to the Atlantic hurricane season, as an extremely active string of storms has imperiled Caribbean Islands, Mexico and the eastern United States.

On the other side of the planet, in the Pacific, the 17,508-island nation of Indonesia has been struck by a unique combination of natural disasters in recent weeks that has contributed to hundreds of deaths and countless destruction in cities and villages. Off the western coast of the island Sumatra, the same region that felt a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April, a 7.7-magnitude event last month created a major tsunami that claimed hundreds.

On October 25, the earthquake occurred on the same fault line as the 2004 event that caused 230,000 deaths and affected Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The 2010 earthquake led to a tsunami that reached 9 feet in height, equivalent to the surge from a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. This wave surged as far as 1,800 feet inland, displacing more than 20,000 people. As of early November, more than 400 were reported to have been killed by the tsunami, with another 100 missing.

The worst of this damage was felt on the Metawai Islands, where the majority of the deceased and missing were living. Mainland towns felt the effects of the earthquake but not the brunt of the wave. In the 36 hours after the initial earthquake, nine aftershocks, including one up to 6.2 on the Richter Scale, were felt on the islands.

On the same day of the initial earthquake, Mt. Merapi on the island of central Java erupted three times, the first of several events that launched lava and ash toward surrounding villages. Approximately 150 deaths were caused by burns and respiratory complications from ash as of Nov. 5.

Other areas of the country faced natural hazards as well. Just weeks before, flash flooding in West Papua, an eastern area of the country, had killed more than 140, according to media reports.

The Jakarta Post, the country’s largest English-language newspaper, published an op-ed article Nov. 2 calling the country “a land of tragedy,” and targeted potential causes of death tolls across the country in recent weeks.

“On a macro scale, the increase of natural disasters in this country directly multiplies the number of people living in poverty,” the article states. “It is not only financially frightening; natural disasters are also psychologically horrifying. The shock due to natural calamities can create a very real terror.”

The article cites long-term approaches to the islands as a factor that could have accelerated the damage caused by these events. Flooding is exacerbated by deforestation, the article said, and poor drainage systems create problems elsewhere in the country.

A lack of tsunami warnings likely contributed to higher death tolls in Mentawai, the article states.

“When natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions, occur, the government frequently shows a kind of desperate reaction: That there is nothing that can be done to stop the disasters,” it read. “This may not be totally wrong; however, there may be a lack of preparation in dealing with those natural crises.”

A case study of the country’s disasters by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre claims the country can experience as many as 2.7 disasters a day related to the natrual environment each day over a 12-month period. Global warming, the study claims, could lead to more frequent flooding and prolonged droughts in parts of the country, hurting major farming and fishing industries. These increasing trends could create statistics more startling than this: According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, in the 100 years preceding 2007 Indonesia has experienced 100 major floods, 85 earthquakes and 46 volcanic eruptions.