• Rio Helmi

Let’s not bury our heads in Mt. Agung’s sand

Today is Galungan. One of the biggest celebrations in Bali, it has mixed origins in animistic, ancestral worship, and ‘Hindu’ practices. As a result rituals performed are mostly connected with people’s homes and villages, whether it be temples, shrines, graveyards, and so forth. For Balinese, the pull to return to their home villages within danger zones is a difficult one to resist. This is further complicated by the very loose (to be euphemistic) interpretation of the recent downgrading of the volcano alert level.

Text and photos by Rio Helmi.

As a number of people have contacted me and asked me to comment on the reduction of the Mt Agung alert status from 4 (Awas) down to 3 (Siaga), allow me to point out a few things I have gleaned from long, serious conversations with my contacts at the PVMBG MT Agung observation post in Rendang, along with my own experience over the last weeks:

1. Just because it’s been downgraded doesn’t make Mt Agung “stable”. We’re still a long ways from that.

2. Mt Agung could still erupt after a short ramp up.

3. Mt Agung is what’s called a “closed system”, it doesn’t display it’s activity very clearly on the outside and is unpredictable. This last is further complicated by the fact that this is the first time it has gone active since it has been observed with instrumentation. Consequently the PVMBG are being cautious about making any “predictions”

4. Another reason they are being cautious is that Mt Agung has a very violent history. To put this into perspective it is one of 58 volcanos worldwide that has hit VEI 5 (Volcanic Explosivity Index). It is one of only 7 volcanoes worldwide that has hit VEI 5 consecutively, and fairly consistently, over the centuries. In the past, over the centuries, it has done a huge amount of damage.

5. The PVMBG volcanologists are not swayed by pressure from the government, nor from the tourist industry, etc. They make their decisions based on deliberating on their observations – seismic, thermal satellite imaging, etc etc etc. There are numerous factors, not just the number of earthquakes. Even though the number of quakes has dropped down drastically from a thousand plus a day, a couple of hundred a day is still far from stable. What they are seeing is a dispersion of seismic activity to other areas.

6. Mt Agung’s ramp up time to an actual eruption has never been recorded instrumentally. Just because they have currently downgraded to 3 doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory (my expression, not theirs). Read: It’s not that clear how much warning time they will have before an eruption.

7. There is of course a chance that the mountain will not erupt, but for the time being there is absolutely no guarantee. Let’s celebrate if and when it really does go dormant again without erupting.

8. One statement I saw on line, referring to the “inability to predict exactly what and when Mt Agung will do”, was: “maybe due to the local Bali volcanologists being less prepared and experienced than those who work in Sumatra and Java”. I will try and contain myself by simply stating they rotate through out Indonesia, these are the same very experienced people, and they are well respected internationally, and it’s not a large community. As one visiting USGS scientist put it to one of my contacts there (and I paraphrase): ‘I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. Merapi is easy. It’s predictable, it has been observed several times by instruments etc, and it is easy to deal with. This mountain has a very singular nature, is highly unpredictable and is particularly destructive. Merapi is a volcanologist’s dream by comparison.’ To put this into perspective, Mt St Helens in the USA, another closed system, caught that country’s geologists by surprise when instead of blowing out through top of the dome that had formed, it blasted out to the side of the dome that had weakened. Volcanos are not neat. In this context, selfie-videos done by foreigners and locals alike “proving that Agung is safe” really not only display their ignorance (again, my opinion) but can be badly misleading.

9. The mistaken or ill-informed view that it is now ‘under control’ (as if one could say that about a volcano of Agung’s nature!!!) has now resulted in many people going back into the innermost (and still very dangerous) 6 km zone. This poses a real headache as these zones are not easy to effect a quick evacuation from, even if they have a couple of hours notice. The idea that modern communication and transportation means easy and swift evacuation for a completely untrained, unpreprared populace through what is essentially a hazardous evac route is ensured, is, sadly misguided...

...10. For those who think that the 22nd of September evacuation was well organized, please talk to the people who were stuck in a 6 hour traffic jam on the road, and those who ended up sleeping by the side of the road. This and other responses necessary by the way, are not the responsibility of the volcanologists, they are responsible for monitoring and reporting on Mt Agung’s status to the authorities who then are responsible for responding as necessary. This should be clear but for some reason it isn’t to some people.

11. There is major work ahead. The mistaken view that all is well will likely lead to a drop in interest in supporting and funding efforts to provide for the remaining evacuees, to continue important volcano/disaster education and training, to provide alternative economic activity that can be undertaken both at home or in evacuation. Internally Displaced Persons do not have it easy – in the event of an eruption, in this (and other aspects) Bali is woefully unprepared.

12. We still have time, how much we don’t know. But we need to use this window efficiently and intelligently to improve our performance in reducing potential casualties and making sure that IDPs can be reasonably comfortable and continue on with their lives during the time they have to be away from their homes – whether the mountain erupts or not. Please let’s not waste this window by putting our heads in the sand.