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'Tsunami warning system needs improvement'

Yusuf Pamuncak interview
October 1, 2018

In an interview with DW, tsunami researcher Widjo Kongko has criticized Indonesia's disaster management agencies for their failure to deal with the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami. Was the government unprepared?

Tsunami in Palu
Image: BNPB

The Indonesian government is struggling to mount a response to the destruction caused by the 7.5 magnitude earthquake, which triggered the tsunami on Friday.

The Southeast Asian country on Monday called for international help to deal with the aftermath.

Indonesian authorities have confirmed at least 1,200 people died as a result of the earthquake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The popular tourist resort of Palu was also severely affected by the twin disasters.

Read more: Tsunami kills hundreds in Indonesia's Sulawesi after earthquake

Authorities expect the death toll to increase dramatically due to shortages of medicine and rescue equipment. Rescue workers have already begun to complain of medicine shortages and a lack of the necessary equipment to reach survivors trapped in collapsed buildings.

Many Indonesians are also criticizing the early lifting of the tsunami warning, arguing that the disaster could have been mitigated had the alarm continued for a longer period of time.

Widjo Kongko
Kongko: 'The tsunami alert should have continued for at least an hour'Image: Privat

In an interview with DW, tsunami researcher Widjo Kongko said the Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics should not have called off the early alert for tsunami so soon after the first quake.

DW: It wasn't the first time that an earthquake and tsunami struck the area. Why, then, were the authorities not better prepared?

Widjo Kongko: The natural disaster law was only introduced in the country after the 2004 earthquake in Aceh. Also, Indonesians tend to get complacent about these disasters, as they happen frequently.

Read more: Tens of thousands displaced following Aceh earthquake

Since 1900, three tsunamis have hit Donggala and Palu cities. After studying them, researchers presented their recommendations on how to deal with such disasters to the government.

We have urged the government, especially the Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics and the National Disaster Management Authority, to work with other institutions so that Indonesia can improve its disaster management and disaster prevention mechanisms.

We need to improve our early warning system for disasters.

What can the government do on the technological front?

Researchers have published numerous studies and reports about earthquakes in Indonesia.

We need to urgently improve the early warning system for tsunami in upstream. Also, Indonesia needs to install sensors for sea monitoring. We once installed sea sensors but faced the risk of vandalism. But we can use other mechanisms in the future, such as fiber optics, which are safer

Why did Indonesian authorities call off the tsunami alert after the earthquake in Palu?

The authorities lifted the early tsunami warning after the station in Mamuju recorded a 6-cm tsunami. But they didn't take into account the tsunami in the bay of Palu, because the sensors did not function properly.

The main issue here is that it is not only an earthquake that causes tsunami - it is also triggered by submarine landslides. Because of this complexity, the early warning for tsuami should have lasted longer - at least for an hour.

Widjo Kongko is tsunami researcher at the Agency for the Indonesian Assessment and Application of Technology.

The interview has been edited for clarity.