A wiser international response to natural disasters


THERE has been little doubt that the Mount Agung volcano on the beautiful Indonesian island of Bali faced a new eruption, at least as significant as its last in 1963, when more than a thousand people were killed. The way in which the government in Jakarta and the local authorities have responded to the latest feared eruption has been impressive.

Over 100,000 people have been ordered to evacuate their homes and businesses. All those who do not have family or friends with whom to stay, have been accommodated successfully in pre-planned public shelters, including sport stadia, schools and local halls. There seems no shortage of emergency supplies for those who have been forced to leave most of their belongings behind. It is not quite as clear how well the police and security forces are protecting tens of thousands of empty properties from thieves.

Similar lessons have been learned in the Democratic Republic of Congo with Mount Nyiragongo, one of Africa’s most active volcanoes which in 2002 erupted and sent lava flows up to a kilometer wide hurtling down onto the nearby city of Goma. Some 15 percent of buildings were destroyed and 400,000 people lost their homes. But the death toll was a relatively modest 147.

The study of volcanoes — volcanology — has advanced rapidly in recent years, thanks in particular to the development of highly portable equipment that can be installed in and around the crater of an active volcano. Powerful and extremely sensitive instruments transmit changing data back to scientists who can monitor the build up in gas and lava pressures. They can even hear to ultra-low frequency “voice” of a volcano’s rumbling magma chamber deep below.

What this means is that when an eruption occurs, the damage and disruption, not simply to property but in Bali’s case, to its all-important tourist trade and to international flights which must be routed around the dangerous clouds of ash traveling many thousands of meters high, is nevertheless manageable.

With earthquakes however, there tends to be less warning because the manifestation of the buildup in subterranean pressure is less obvious than a steaming, grumbling mountain. But seismologists insist that they are improving their understanding of the massively powerful forces at play between the earth’s moving tectonic plates. But accurate earthquake prediction remains patchy.

Yet it is a certainty that earthquakes will occur, often in isolated regions of the globe where they have happened before. The real uncertainty rests in how well the international community can cope with such natural disasters. Time and again we have seen an impressive aid response from the outside world. Generally, within 24 hours, search teams, mechanical diggers, thousands of cargo bins of tents, blankets, water and food are all disgorged onto the tarmac of a stricken state’s main airport. If the country is notably poor, such as Nepal two years ago, international appeals for financial donations rapidly attract many millions of dollars.

But the money, the warehouses full of aid and the hotels hosting frustrated international rescue workers lack the one key that would unlock their saving power — and that is effective coordination. The UN surely needs a standing, well-trained and well-resourced international rescue force, with serious helicopter lift abilities. This can take immediate control of the multiple sources of outside help and avoid the waste of precious days as a struggling local government attempts to organize everything itself.