Indonesia’s economy at mercy of disasters


The Mentawai islands tsunami in West Sumatra and Mount Merapi’s multiple volcanic eruptions have left a question mark as to whether Indonesia, located in the Ring of Fire, is able to properly tackle natural disasters and the ramifications this has for its continued economic growth.

With the tsunami death toll now at more than 400, the main question still to be answered is why the tsunami alarm did not sound. According to a meteorology and geophysics official, it began malfunctioning in 2009 and stopped working last month due to alleged poor maintenance. This is unacceptable.

There have also been problems concerning transportation in and around the disaster area, including South and North Pagai islands. It is proving difficult to help victims as it is about a four-hour journey by boat, and dangerous in rough seas. Furthermore, road conditions are poor or lacking.

”We are very confused on how to deliver the aid. We have the logistics aid and hundreds of volunteers who are ready to lend their hands to the disaster sites. But we can’t transport them,” Mentawai Natural Disaster Mitigation Agency’s co-ordinating unit officer, Masrizal, told local media last week.

Back on Indonesia’s largest and most populated island of Java, Mount Merapi’s volcanic eruption that began spewing hot cloud this week has also caused havoc, forcing the evacuation of about 48,000.

But yet again, efforts to provide aid have been a struggle. As of Wednesday evening there were only seven shelters provided, which was enough to house only 12,000 people — less than half of those who had been displaced.

Indonesia is a paradox – the world’s largest archipelago is both a place of natural beauty and disasters. The beauty makes it a prime tourist destination, but its failure to provide and maintain road infrastructure or important disaster-management technology may seriously hamper this vital part of the nation’s economy.

The country’s insufficient infrastructure may also be damaging its potential to draw in foreign investors. Flooding and subsequent traffic jams that paralysed Jakarta last week left many residents doubting the city’s ability to continue to function.
Public transport was not an option – the Transjakarta Busway shares lanes with private vehicles and train services were also delayed by floods. Some areas were only accessible by inflatable dinghies. But the jam did more than just frustrate commuters. It halted business.

The capital’s inability to cope with several hours of heavy rain is perhaps a taste of what is to come if its infrastructure and land use regulations are not quickly overhauled. Experts anticipate Jakarta will face a total gridlock by 2014 and lose up to $US3 billion per year if these problems are not fixed.

Rapid change seems unlikely, especially given that maintenance is already long overdue for much of the city’s infrastructure. Road users face lengthy daily traffic jams; and the road system itself is in a state of disrepair in many areas. One of Jakarta’s main waterways is the West Flood Canal, used to alleviate flooding by draining water from the city and eventually out to sea, but it is functioning at only 30-40 per cent of its capacity, due to sedimentation and a build-up of garbage. The Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit System (MRT), which is to include an elevated and underground railway system, was originally expected to have been functioning by now but will only open its first stages of construction in 2016 – six years after the first phase of construction was expected to start.

Even if infrastructure development gets under way soon, the results would not begin to emerge for at least five to 10 years, and there is some fear that the 2011 budget may not allocate enough funding for development. As a percentage of GDP, Indonesia’s budget for infrastructure decreased from 3.4 per cent in 2007 to the proposed 1.8 per cent for 2011. But without a significant increase to infrastructure spending, experts say the largest economy in South-East Asia cannot continue to grow.

It took four days for Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo apologise for the problems suffered by an increasingly dissatisfied public. The government must deal with Indonesia’s infrastructure dilemmas and make swift progress before it finds itself neck deep in a flood of outrage.

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