Almost all cases of natural disasters that have occurred were caused by poor spatial management. Indonesia needs to reevaluate land use, types of users, spatial patterns, and permit processes, and rebuild on the principle of protecting and prospering the people.

The year 2021 started with a series of natural disasters that occurred in succession, uprooting lives in major Indonesian cities. From the earth quakes in West Sulawesi’s Majene and Mamasa, to a landslide in Sumedang, West Java, to flash flood in several subdistricts in South Kalimantan, and Manado, South Sulawesi. The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) recorded a total of 197 disasters in Indonesia from 1 to 23 Janury 2021.

The flash floods in South Kalimantan and earthquakes in West Sulawesi stole the public attention as local and national media reported over 90.500 homes in 10 subdistricts were inundated, over 62.000 residents remained displaced, and at least 25 people dead following the flash flood. While the two major earthquakes in West Sulawesi damaged over 300 buildings and at least 27 residents were reported dead.

Information about the cause of the flash floods in South Kalimantan remain scarce but President Joko Widodo blamed the high rainfall. While environmental activists say that the damaged ecosystem due to rampant mining and plantation permits, is to blame.

The South Kalimantan’s chapter of the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI) data shows, parts of 3,7 million hectares of land sprawled across 13 subdistricts are under concessions; 33 percent for mining and 17 percent for plantation. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) released its analysis of the flood on its social media platform and say that heavy rainfall was one of the causes.

LAPAN also pointed out that based on its observation of forest coverage surrounding the Barito River Basins from 2010 to 2020, there has been significant decline in primary and secondary forests, rice fields and shrubs. The same analysis also showed a significant expansion of plantation area by 219.000 hectares in the 2010-2020 period.

Not only in Kalimantan, but in other areas where floods are also frequent, spatial planning and spatial use patterns are suspected to have triggered the frequent natural disasters. As disasters continue to occur, the government’s plans in mitigation and disaster risk-oriented development remain underwhelming

To learn more about the correlation between disasters, spatial planning, and disaster mitigation, the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) talks to Eko Teguh Paripurno, a geologist and disaster mitigation expert at the Yogyakarta Veterans National Development University.

Eko Teguh Paripurno Credit: dokumen pribadi Credit: dokumen pribadi

We have just entered 2021, yet there have been a series of natural disasters starting with flood in South Kalimantan, landslide in Sumedang, earthquakes in West Sulawesi, and the eruption of Mount Semeru. What is your observation of the disaster mitigation process in these areas?

These disasters were natural but they were triggered by human activities that lead to natural disasters. In Sumedang, landslides happened because there were settlements on the cliff, that was cleared, leveled, and houses built. As a result, the slopes are unstable, and with the rainy season in full swing, landslide happens.

On the other hand, if we talk about flood, there has to be contribution from spatial use, when (water) catchment is poor, an improvement must be made on water catchment. Concerning the earthquake in West Sulawesi, we know that is a part of Palu fault. As a result many administrative office, hospitals and houses were badly damaged.

The question is why are public buildings not able to withstand these shocks, even though there is information about earthquake, there is theory of earthquake-resistant buildings, budget is available and so is the technology. But when all of that is done, it’s not compatible. Why is that the case? Are there errors in its planning, budgeting, and implementation?

Our tendency is that we are not conscientious or ignorant about the standard requirements in mitigation planning and prevention. And so when we reached to the point of disaster, they raise their hands and pass the problem to other party.

You mentioned there is a spatial problem in the natural disaster zone, can you elaborate?

Spatial plans drawn up may conflict with environmental protection-oriented planning efforts. Spatial planning and its utilization should be made for the common good by emphasizing the protection of the community. However, these interest can change everything, like how the natural forest conservation area can be converted into production forest. A change in spatial use due to interests can trigger disasters.

Interestingly, almost all cases of natural disasters occur due to poor spatial management. Such as not adhering to the science of it or not using technology to reduce disaster risk. In Indonesia, there is the courage to take risks but this is not paired with sufficient efforts to manage risks.

President Joko Widodo claimed that the flood in South Kalimantan is caused by heavy rainfall, what are your thoughts on this?

When it rains, there’s flooding. Then the drought is caused by zero rainfall. The thinking pattern should not be that way. The problem how well or poorly we manage disaster risk. Many narratives can be written but cannot justified. I still believe that there is contribution from poor forest and land management to these floods.

How do we improve forest condition due to mining and plantation, to reduce the risks of natural disaster?

When you say improve, is it the danger level or reducing the risk? If we talk about the danger level, then whether you want it or not, we must rearrange everything. We can start by managing the forest, we don’t have to destroy them all.

According to civil society coalition, there are many mining and plantation concessions in Kalimantan, is this the cause of the flood?

If it’s just the permit, that is not related to disaster, but what is causing the floods to occur is the implementation of these permits, that does not include the reduction of disaster risk. That’s where the pain point is. No matter the number of permits issued, if they are implemented correctly, then there shouldn’t be any problem. So the digression is in the management of activities in mining, agriculture and plantation, that are not oriented towards reducing risks of disaster. I think corporate’s orientation is solely focused on making profits.

Based on that, do you think the government should re-evaluate permits issued within the forest management area?

Yes, if the government can reflect on the use of land, the types of users, spatial pattern, (review) permit processing overall must be done. This reflection can be done when there is awareness of a disaster risk reduction system, but what actually happens is neglect. Government or stakeholder statement remains normative with a tendency of washing their hands clean. The government, and all of us must have the courage to come up with an effective risk management narrative.

Does that apply nationwide?

Yes, in my opinion, it is time for Indonesia to return to its guiding principle, and that is  development that is oriented towards protecting and for the prosperity of the people. I am afraid the basic principle of sustainable development taking into account these two aspects is not working. In the end, only those who can govern with certain interest will benefit, while the people are sacrificed.

Do you think the government has been neglectful?

Actually, disaster and its management cannot be sole responsibility of the government as it is everyone’s responsibility. The government does have the main mandate and responsibility, others also regarded with this mandate are academics, media and the public. We cannot just start thinking about disaster mitigation when an emergency situation arise. In other words, we care about flooding when the rainy season kicks in, or care about drought when the dry season strikes. We can’t have this ‘holier than thou’ attitude, when we are not contributing. That’s where it gets bothersome.

In your observation, what are the key areas that stakeholders can and need to improve?

I think, we need to fix what we can fix. We realize we won’t be able to do all at once. We have a natural disaster emergency management standard, we also have manual books. The principles that are underlined in that emergency management must be carried out. In addition to that, humanitarian charters and guidelines from ministries must also be carried out. The management will be well when we have no other interests than humanity.

Abdus Somad

Abdus Somad, born in Karangasem, Bali, 27 years ago. He plunged into journalism by joining Axis Student Press at Ahmad Dahlan University, Yogyakarta. After graduating from college in 2018, he worked as...

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