Sulawesi tsunami: how social media (and a lullaby) can save lives in future disasters

Rescue team members rest near an earthquake-devastated area during a search for victims under the ruins of collapsed buildings in Balaroa, Palu city, Central Sulawesi. EPA Images

Social media use is widespread in Indonesia, so people filming everyday scenes can sometimes inadvertently capture extraordinary environmental events. Of the “viral” videos to emerge of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, for example, one in particular stood out: it was of a man’s initially desperate calls to people below him as the tsunami approached Palu City – and then his sobs of despair after the wave struck.

The man’s evident distress has universal resonance; we all share in his helplessness at the devastation wrought within minutes. But footage like this could also help to change local cultural attitudes to such catastrophes and the risks posed by them.

Why did this happen?

Making sense of disasters involves exploring a complex mix of explanations. It is important to disentangle notions of causal chains from broader issues of blame and responsibility. Many in developed nations focus on the possible failure of warning systems and a “forensic risk” investigation of the events leading up to the event. But people may also struggle to understand how these factors are not the primary concern of many Indonesians after a disaster.

For a large number of Indonesians, questions about why such things happen are answered not by science, but by faith. Faith requires an acceptance of suffering and the belief that such catastrophes are a test from God. For those who look at it this way, why this happened is not explained by measurements of the sea bed and the details of monitoring system technoscience, nor is it made clearer by regarding science and religion as mutually exclusive ways of framing disasters.

Nevertheless, it is important for all to recognise that the high death toll in Palu was due in part to low preparedness. Many people failed to protect themselves because they weren’t clear about the threat posed by tsunamis after an earthquake and how deadly they can be. Regardless of the information that people had in Palu after the earthquake and whether they trusted it, the outcome would have been better if more people had moved away from the shoreline.

The fact that many people seemingly failed to do this is perhaps surprising given raw memories of the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which devastated parts of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and elsewhere. Despite this, even people in Banda Aceh – one of the worst affected areas in 2004 – remain vulnerable to tsunamis as shown by events after another earthquake in 2012. On that occasion, instead of following evacuation routes or going to tsunami shelters, people tried to go home first or pick up their children from school, creating traffic jams and chaos in the process.

Residents walk by a damaged mosque, which now sits in the water near Talise beach, Palu, Central Sulawesi. EPA Images


But widespread loss of life should not be accepted as inevitable during such extreme events. And while early warning systems can play their part in this, so can less technological, cultural solutions.

Take the case of Simeulue, an Indonesian island that was also struck by the 2004 tsunami. While Aceh province was one of the worst hit areas, very few on the island died compared to other communities in the region. This was, in part, because of the tradition of “smong”.

This is a lullaby sung by grandmothers to children to tell them to run for higher ground when an earthquake occurs – and this is exactly what many people did because the appropriate action had become part of their disaster culture. Of course, globalisation means that cultural change is accelerating in Indonesia, but sometimes the most obviously scalable solutions, such as smong, are also the simplest.

The Indonesian Agency for for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) has a phone app that sends very quick alerts about seismic activity and potential tsunamis to those using it. We saw warnings about the earthquake and the potential for a tsunami in Sulawesi on our own phones from the relative safety of Bandung, 1,000km away on the island of Java – and were concerned mainly that people would respond and evacuate efficiently. The subsequent distressing impact in Palu shows that such warnings can be useless if people are not aware of, fail to trust or understand them, or are ill-prepared to know what to do in the event of one.

The need for collective anger

The language of disaster in post-colonial times is, somewhat ironically, British. The overriding message is: “Keep calm and carry on.” People are told to be patient as they wait for aid and assistance.

The Indonesian people have enormous reserves of resilience and impressive powers of recovery, which is good news for the region’s ability to rebuild. But while anger is not a prominent characteristic of Indonesians, in this case it could be productive.

Indonesia is now officially in a national election period and it is vital that pressure is brought to bear on politicians to invest properly in disaster preparedness. President Jokowi twice visited the disaster scene in a familiar ritual now widely expected from politicians who are briefly in the international spotlight. This looks good on television and plays well to the electorate, but real care requires genuine investment of thought, time and money. Talking with Indonesian colleagues, there is an awareness that disaster preparedness needs to be politicised as part of a broader cultural change.

Looking for survivors. EPA Images

Organisations such as the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) reports that the Indonesian government “spends US$300m to US$500m annually on post-disaster reconstruction” and “costs during major disaster years reach 0.3% of national GDP and as high as 45% of GDP at the provincial level”.

Budgets clearly need to increase, but these funds should also be used to do things differently – for example, by focusing more on people’s awareness in a way that engages better and more proactively with communities and their existing cultures. As disasters happen at a local level, local government should take a central role in this. Existing socialisation programmes are not working and even if everyone on the beachfront in Palu city had the BMKG app on their phone, would they have known exactly what to do to keep themselves and others safe?

Understand the message

Disaster monitoring and warning systems are useless if people do not understand the message, do not trust the messenger, and do not have safe places to go. Indonesia could become a world leader in disaster preparedness, not necessarily by mimicking the disaster culture of countries like Japan, but by harnessing the creative energy and growing willingness of young people in particular to challenge the way things are done in their country. The key is to come up with solutions that best serve and make most sense to the communities they are meant to protect.

Collective anger and action among younger people – and their use of social media – could be the first step towards the Palu video, and others like it, inciting a national cultural transformation in which disasters like this are not just seen as another, inevitable fact of life, but are instead spoken about and planned for in ways that will actually save lives on a local level.

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