Volcano’s awakening a reminder of Indonesia’s vulnerabiility

a man rides is becak through the falling ash (Reuters) (click for more photos from the Jakarta Globe)

A man rides his becak through the falling ash (Reuters) (click for more photos from the Jakarta Globe)

On Thursday night, Mount Kelud, a volcano in eastern Java, blew a plume of smoke and ash 17 km into the air.  The eruption shook the surrounding villages, which were soon covered in ash and rock. If you live in a place that has recently received about 5-10 inches of snow, just imagine ash, like finely ground stone, coating your roofs and streets.  The ash has already reached as far as 619 km (384 miles) from the volcano, and may reach Jakarta soon. It has cause many flights to be grounded and at least five airports are closed.

Mt Kelud already holds a place as the world’s seventh-deadliest volcano for killing more than 5,000 people in 1919; it may have been responsible for some 10,000 deaths in 1586. So far, this eruption has claimed three lives: Two people were killed when a shelter collapsed under the weight of falling rocks, and one from lung damage from the ash. Sadly, many more will suffer injuries, ash-inhalation, and damaged property.

When we moved to Indonesia, the threat posed by the country’s 130 volcanoes was nothing new to us. We were moving from Quito, Ecuador, where we lived in the shadow of the volcano Pichincha. We had seen smoke plumes rising above Tungurahua, an active volcano in the middle of the country, south of Quito. What I did not realize when we moved to Indonesia, though, was that we were moving to the deadliest volcanic region on Earth — far more dangerous and active than the volcanoes in all of the Andes. In recent history, Indonesia has suffered more deaths due to volcanoes than any other country, or even volcanic region. Between 1600 and 1982, Indonesia was home to 63 percent of known deaths from volcanic eruptions. Mt Kelud is not alone this month: Mt Sinabung on Sumatra (Indonesia’s westernmost island) has been erupting continuously since October 2013; yesterday, activity increased at Mt Lewotobi Perempuan in East Flores, causing authorities to raise its alert level.

All of this points to the precarious situation in which many Indonesians live.  According to the Smithsonian Institution, more than 75 percent of Indonesia’s 247 million residents live within 100 km of a volcano, the highest number of people of any of the world’s volcanic regions.  Right now, we are fine here in Jakarta, but we have resources that most Indonesians do not, including insurance. Even when the eruptions are not deadly, they create massive damage, destroying homes and crops, even poisoning land.

We hope that Kelud’s activity is over, at least for now, and those people who have had to flee can return to their homes.

Homes near the volcano were dusted with ash (reuters)

Homes near the volcano were dusted with ash (Reuters)

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