Natural Disasters

Bali Is Struggling To Cope With 75,000 Volcano Refugees

Locals are worried about a food crisis, but Australian tourists are still flooding in.
September 28, 2017, 6:21am
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With the predicted eruption of the Mt Agung looming, Bali is on the cusp of humanitarian disaster. Already, some 75,000 Balinese have fled their homes and locals have voiced serious concerns about an impending food crisis.

Should Agung erupt, tens of thousands of Balinese living around the volcano's base risk losing everything. "If the volcano erupts they can't go back to their land for up to two years because the volcano will still be dangerous," says Sean Powderly, a Sydney-based DJ and humanitarian worker who's spent the past few days delivering supplies to evacuation camps around the Indonesian island.


Powderly has spoken to dozens of residents from villages surrounding the volcano, many of whom are making trips back into the danger zone to feed their livestock, and tend to rice paddies and crops. "Some people aren't leaving because they need to work and they need their livestock," he says. "The pigs and the cows are like they're security deposit, their bank account. If things go bad they sell their cows and pigs—a cow is worth like $AUD1,000.

"In a way, all these farmers have their savings accounts sitting under this volcano. They're saying, 'If I leave I lose all my money. What am I going to do?"

Powderly also came across female Balinese labourers shovelling gravel for a construction company within the kilometre perimeter set up by authorities in case of an eruption.

"We were like are you concerned? And they were like, 'Yeah, we're really concerned… but we have to work to make a living,'" he says.

Indonesia, which is mired in corruption and poverty, is facing a constant battle to keep up with the demands of feeding 75,000 stranded locals. "This morning we were worried because we had limited rice supply, but now we have received more rice stocks from donors," I Ketut Subandi, head of logistics at the village of Tana Ampo, told SBS yesterday.

In response, the Balinese community has come together impressively to provide support for those at risk.

"Every village in Bali has been getting behind to help these people," agrees Tai Graham, a pro surfer and bar operator who manages some 250 Balinese staff. "Everyone is uniting as one and I think the whole world could take a leaf out of their book… That's when you see how strong this island is."


Mt Agung last erupted in 1963. An estimated 1,000 people died as lava flows, ash, and debris tore down the north and south sides of the volcano. Technological advancements have since made it possible to predict the timeframe of an eruption with much greater accuracy, hopefully preventing mass loss of life. But how Bali—still a tiny, impoverished island away from the tourist hotspots—will deal with 75,000 displaced people and a large area potentially rendered unlivable remains to be seen.

"It's like 150,000 meals a day, a million meals in the next two weeks, where is that coming from?" asks Sean.

Bali is a complicated place, where desperation and decadence exist side-by-side every day. And right now is a prime example of that tension, as between 50,000 and 60,000 tourists continue to arrive on the island every day to holiday and party. The main tourist districts are located, theoretically, outside the danger zone. So for holidaymakers it's mostly business as usual.

But Graham says tourists are pretty oblivious to the threat Agung poses to the Balinese people. "It might not seem like much of an affect to everyone sitting over here in fancy villas," he says, "but to the real people of the immediate area it's disruptive for sure."

And of course it's not just the immediate impact of the eruption, but also the flow on effects to Bali's main industry—tourism. If Agung erupts, the closure of Bali's international airport and the one on neighbouring Lombok would stop the flow of tourists who keep the local economy turning.


Beyond that, there is potential for major disruptions of the island's food distribution network and infrastructure due to ash fall and road closures.

"Your air cons get clogged [with ash fall.] You've got your pets and animals, all the agriculture, all our daily fruit and vegetables that come here from across the island—[all of that] could get stopped," Graham says. "It's a pretty strong thoroughfare [around Agung] especially for produce coming from other islands on the ferries. That can get stopped, petrol to get around can get stopped.

"The effects of it could be pretty full on."

At the time of writing, a continuous white plume of smoke has been observed streaming from the crater of Mount Agung. The Volcano Observatory Notice for Aviation has said this indicates an increased likelihood of eruption.

More as this story develops. Follow Jed on Twitter