Broken, Stripped, and Stolen: Indonesia's Tsunami Warning System Is a Mess

All 22 tsunami-detecting buoys stopped working... six years ago.

03 October 2018, 8:47am

The 2004 Aceh tsunami was supposed to be a turning point for Indonesia. That disaster was truly catastrophic. More than 130,000 people were killed when a magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra caused the sea to rise up in a monstrous tsunami measuring as much as 30 meters in height. The wave tore across Aceh province, leaving a wave of devastation in its path.

It was the kind of disaster no one wanted to see again. It's impossible to prevent an earthquake or tsunami. But it is possible to limit the loss of life. Early warning systems play a vital role in saving lives during a tsunami. The earlier people know about the wave, the earlier they can flee to the relative safety of higher ground.

Indonesia's earthquake monitoring agency, with the help of foreign funding, anchored 22 tsunami-detecting buoys off the coast of Indonesia. The buoys are basically high-tech, floating sensors. They are anchored to the ground and have equipment that detects seismic activity on the ocean floor. The buoy then measures sea level rises in the deep ocean, sending out warnings when it detects a coming tsunami. It's seen as a far better predictor of wave height and danger levels than tidal sensors, which don't collect data fast enough to issue a warning.

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Or, at least, they would be, if any of them still worked. All 22 buoys have been broken since 2012, according to Sutopo Purwonugroho, the spokesman for Indonesia's weather, climate, and geophysics agency (BMKG). Some of the buoys were damaged by fishermen anchoring off them. Others were vandalized. A few were stolen. But the biggest reason the early warning system has been offline for six years comes down to money—there isn't enough of it.

"Since 2012, none of the buoys were operational, even though they are crucial for early warning," Sutopo told the local press.

The buoy system costs an estimated $2.3 million USD to maintain every year. But the government never allocated enough money in the state budget to fund this necessary maintenance. So the buoys broke, and the system failed to notice that last Friday a 6-meter-tall wave was heading toward Palu, in Central Sulawesi.

Sutopo has been telling the press that these buoys were all broken for years. Here he is back in 2016 telling reporters after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck off the coast of Sumatra, near the city of Padang, how much of a mess the system really is: “We can easily forget. After the quake in Aceh we wanted to do everything, but by 2015 we don’t have money allocated [to fix the buoys].”

So what has the government been doing all this time? Delaying the allocation of the money needed to fund a new system developed by US and Indonesian scientists. It's a bureaucratic mess that's now costing people's lives.

If this system is broken, then how as the BMKG been predicting potential tsunamis? The buoys aren't the only thing the agency has to monitor seismic activity. It also has a network made up of hundreds of sensors and gauges that measure undersea earthquakes.

But that network, too, is on the verge of falling apart. There are 170 earthquake sensors out there, but the agency only has the budget to maintain 70 of them in a given year. So while the existing system can catch seismic activity and warn coastal residents of potential tsunamis, it isn't exactly 100 percent accurate.

Instead, the BMKG relies on the location of a quakes epicenter to figure out whether it could cause a tsunami, explained Andi Ake Sakya, the former head of the agency. For example, if an earthquake of at least magnitude 6.9 occurs off-shore at a depth of less than 70 kilometers, and in a so-called "megathrust zone"—the area where two continental plates meet—then a tsunami may be likely.

“Around 46 percent of Indonesia’s coastline lies on the path of the megathrust,” Andi said.

The BMKG also monitors the horizontal and vertical movement of cracks on the seafloor—the source of tsunamis. This movement is important. A large quake can occur on the sea floor but still not cause a tsunami in some circumstances. This is what happened with that 2016 earthquake off the coast of Padang. It was a big quake, and it was under the sea, but it didn't trigger a tsunami.

Still, the buoy system would've added an important additional layer to Indonesia's tsunami monitoring system. A tsunami travels an average of 800 kilometers per-hour, nearly the same speed as a commercial plane. Most of Indonesia’s coastline are a mere 200 to 400 kilometers from earthquake epicenters. That means a buoy floating 200 kilometers off-shore could give coastal residents as much as 15 minutes to flee, Andi explained. He calls this window the "golden time."

“The buoys could have been working just fine,” he said. “So much vandalism has happened and the buoys have just gone missing or been stolen. This is a problem, because as far as I can remember from 2008 to 2012, they were functioning."

Others think the government should spend its money not on expensive, complicated monitoring systems, but on education programs instead. Danny Hilman Natawijaya, a geo-technology expert at the Indonesian Institute of Science, told VICE that the buoy system is just too expensive to install and maintain.

“The buoys aren’t that sophisticated," he said. "It’s not like it will detect a tsunami as soon as it’s installed. That’s not how it works. It's a process. It needs experts watching it like a hawk at the tsunami warning center. It’s not that easy to have early detection with buoys.”

The funds should be spent, instead, on disaster drills in schools, town halls, and on television. There should be maps to tell people where to flee, shelters to climb, and sirens to warn people. All of this was lacking in Palu. Some 63 percent of Palu residents surveyed in 2011 by Litbang Kompas didn't know that tsunamis were an actual risk in Sulawesi. At the time, 95 percent of residents said they felt safe from natural disasters.

When the earthquake hit, hundreds of people were gathered on the beach for a festival. According to several reports in local press, few went running for higher ground after the quake struck. And with the communications networks down—a common issue post-earthquake—no one was receiving the emergency text messages either.

"From what I've seen, too much early warning equipment fails," Danny said. "For example, during the 2009 Padang quake, the sirens didn't work. All telecommunications were down too. So it really comes down to whether the population knows how to handle a disaster or not."

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