Why Indonesia’s tsunamis are so deadly



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MAST IRHAM/EPA

Anja Scheffers, Southern Cross University

The magnitude 7.5 earthquake, and subsequent tsunami, that struck Indonesia days ago has resulted in at least 1,200 deaths.

Authorities are still gauging the extent of the damage, but it’s clear the earthquake and tsunami had a devastating effect on the Sulawesi region, particularly the city of Palu.

It’s not the first time earthquakes have caused mass destruction and death in Indonesia. The tsunamis that follow are particularly damaging. But why?

A combination of plate tectonic in the region, the shape of the coastline, vulnerable communities and a less-than-robust early warning system all combine to make Indonesian tsunamis especially dangerous.




Read more:
Would a better tsunami warning system have saved lives in Sulawesi?


Tectonic plates

Indonesia covers many complex tectonic environments. Many details of these are still poorly understood, which hampers our ability to predict earthquake and tsunami risks.

The biggest earthquakes on Earth are “subduction zone” earthquakes, which occur where two tectonic plates meet.

In December 2004 and March 2005, there were a pair of subduction zone earthquakes along the Sunda Trench offshore of the west coast of Sumatra. In particular, the magnitude-9.1 quake in December 2004 generated a devastating tsunami that killed almost a quarter of a million people in countries and islands surrounding the Indian Ocean.

But only looking out for these kinds of earthquakes can blind us to other dangers. Eastern Indonesia has many small microplates, which are jostled around by the motion of the large Australia, Sunda, Pacific and Philippine Sea plates.

The September quake was caused by what’s called a “strike-slip” fault in the interior of one of these small plates. It is rare – although not unknown – for these kinds of quakes to create tsunamis.

The fault systems are rather large, and through erosion processes have created broad river valleys and estuaries. The valley of the Palu river, and its estuary in which the regional capital Palu is located, have been formed by this complex fault system. Studies of prehistoric earthquakes along this fault system suggests this fault produces magnitude 7-8 earthquakes roughly every 700 years.

The sea floor shapes the wave

Another important factor for tsunamis is the depth and shape of the sea floor. This determines the speed of the initial waves. Strong subduction zone earthquakes on the ocean floor can cause the entire ocean water column to lift, then plunge back down. As the water has momentum, it may fall below sea level and create strong oscillations.

The bulge of water moving outward from the centre of a earthquake maybe of limited height (rarely much more than a metre), but the mass of water is extremely large (depending on the surface area moved by the earthquake).

Tsunami waves can travel very fast, reaching the speed of a jet. In water 2km deep they can travel at 700km per hour, and over very deep ocean can hit 1,000km per hour.

When the wave approaches the shallower coast, its speed decreases and the height increases. A tsunami may be 1m high in the open ocean, but rise to 5-10m at the coast. If the approach to the shoreline is steep, this effect is exaggerated and can create waves tens of metres high.

Despite the fact that the waves slow down near the coast, their immense starting speeds mean flat areas can be inundated for kilometres inland. The ocean floor topography affects the speed of tsunami waves, meaning they move faster over deep areas and slow down over submarine banks. Very steep land, above or below water, can even bend and reflect waves.

The coastlines of the Indonesian archipelago are accentuated, in particular in the eastern part and especially at Sulawesi. Palu has a narrow, deep and long bay: perfectly designed to make tsunamis more intense, and more deadly.

This complex configuration also makes it very difficult to model potential tsunamis, so it’s hard to issue timely and accurate warnings to people who may be affected.




Read more:
Explainer: after an earthquake, how does a tsunami happen?


Get to high ground

The safest and simplest advice for people in coastal areas that have been affected by an earthquake is to get to higher ground immediately, and stay there for a couple of hours. In reality, this is a rather complex problem.

Hawaii and Japan have sophisticated and efficient early warning systems. Replicating these in Indonesia is challenging, given the lack of communications infrastructure and the wide variety of languages spoken throughout the vast island archipelago.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, international efforts were made to improve tsunami warning networks in the region. Today, Indonesia’s tsunami warning system operates a network of 134 tidal gauge stations, 22 buoys connected to seafloor sensors to transmit advance warnings, land-based seismographs, sirens in about 55 locations, and a system to disseminate warnings by text message.

However, financing and supporting the early warning system in the long term is a considerable problem. The buoys alone cost around US$250,000 each to install and US$50,000 annually for maintenance.

The three major Indonesian agencies for responsible for earthquake and tsunami disaster mitigation have suffered from budget cuts and internal struggles to define roles and responsibilities.

Lastly, the Palu tsunami event has highlighted that our current tsunami models are insufficient. They do not properly consider multiple earthquake events, or the underwater landslides potentially caused by such quakes.

No early warning system can prevent strong earthquakes. Tsunamis, and the resulting infrastructure damage and fatalities, will most certainly occur in the future. But with a well-developed and reliable early warning system, and better communication and public awareness, we can minimise the tragic consequences.

With earthquakes that occur very close to the beach – often the case in Indonesia – even an ideal system could not disseminate the necessary information quickly enough. Indonesia’s geography and vulnerable coastal settlements makes tsunamis more dangerous, so we need more and concerted efforts to create earthquake and tsunami resilient communities.The Conversation

Anja Scheffers, Professor, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Would a better tsunami warning system have saved lives in Sulawesi?


Jane Cunneen, Curtin University

The death toll from the magnitude 7.5 earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck near Palu, Indonesia, on Friday evening continues to rise, with several regions yet to be reached by rescue teams.

But the size and location of the earthquake should not have come as a surprise. Palu is situated at the end of a long, narrow bay which is the surface expression of a very active fault, the Palu-Koro fault.

The area is at high risk of tsunami, with several large earthquakes and tsunamis occurring along the fault within the past 100 years.




Read more:
Explainer: after an earthquake, how does a tsunami happen?


Details of Friday’s incident are limited, but already there are questions being asked about the effectiveness of Indonesia’s tsunami warning system.

It was developed after the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that occurred after an earthquake near Sumatra, but in this recent event the warning did not reach many of the people who were affected.

The tsunami occurred in an area where there are no tide gauges that could give information about the height of the wave. There are reports that a more high-tech system could have saved lives if it had been fully implemented.

Most of Indonesia’s deep ocean tsunameter buoys, specially designed to detect tsunamis in the open ocean, have not been working since 2012.

The Indonesian Tsunami Warning System issued a warning only minutes after the earthquake, but officials were unable to contact officers in the Palu area. The warning was cancelled 34 minutes later, just after the third tsunami wave hit Palu.

Tsunami history of Palu

Large earthquakes are not uncommon in Palu, with 15 events over magnitude 6.5 occurring in the past 100 years. The largest was a magnitude-7.9 event in January 1996, about 100km north of Friday’s earthquake.

Several these large earthquakes have also generated tsunamis. In 1927, an earthquake and tsunami caused about 50 deaths and damaged buildings in Palu. In 1968 an earthquake with magnitude 7.8 near Donggala generated a tsunami wave that killed more than 200 people.

Despite this history, many people in Palu were not aware of the risk of a tsunami following the earthquake. Ten years on from the 2004 Boxing Day tragedy that killed at least 226,000 people, there were concerns about tsunami warning systems across the region.

An advanced warning system currently only in the prototype stage may not have helped the people of Palu, as the tsunami struck the shore within 20 minutes of the earthquake.

Such early warning systems are most useful for areas several hundred kilometres from the tsunami source. In regions like Palu where the earthquake and tsunami source are very close, education is the most effective warning system.

It is not yet clear whether Friday’s tsunami was caused by movement on the fault rupture from the earthquake, or from submarine landslides within Palu bay caused by the shaking from the earthquake.

The sides of the bay are steep and unstable, and maps of the sea floor suggest that submarine landslides have occurred there in the past.

If the tsunami was generated by a submarine landslide within the bay, tsunami sensors or tide gauges at the mouth of the bay would not have sensed the tsunami wave before it struck the shore in Palu.

Communication networks

High tech tsunami warning systems are able to send out warnings through phone networks and other communications channels, and reach the community through text messages and tsunami sirens on the beaches.

But in areas where a devastating earthquake has occurred, this infrastructure is often too damaged to operate and the warning messages simply can’t get through. In Palu, the earthquake destroyed the local mobile phone network and no information was able to get in or out of the area.

Timing is also crucial. Official tsunami warnings require analysis of data and take time – even if it is only minutes – to prepare and disseminate.

This time is crucial for people near the earthquake epicentre, where the tsunami may strike within minutes of the earthquake. Those living in such areas need to be aware of the need to evacuate without waiting for official warnings, relying on the earthquake itself as a natural warning of a potential tsunami.




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The need to raise awareness of the risk becomes even more challenging when large tsunamis occur infrequently, as in Palu. Many residents would not have been born when the last tsunami impacted the town in 1968.

So high tech warning systems may not be effective in areas close to the earthquake epicentre. Ongoing awareness and education programmes are the most important part of a tsunami warning system in coastal areas at risk of tsunami, no matter how infrequently they occur.The Conversation

Jane Cunneen, Research Fellow, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lombok earthquakes: different building designs could lessen future damage



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A 6.9 magnitude earthquake led to the collapse of thousands of houses in the northern parts of the Indonesian island of Lombok.
Adi Weda / AAP, CC BY-SA

Graeme MacRae, Massey University

The series of earthquakes in North Lombok and others further east goes on. But hopefully the worst is over and the intensity will recede from now.

Hundreds of people have been killed and a lot more injured, many of them seriously. Nearly all this human suffering was caused by collapsing buildings. The subsequent homelessness will go on for many months for hundreds of thousands of people.

But a lot of this suffering need not have happened.




Read more:
After devastating earthquakes, Indonesia must embrace radical change


Changing building standards

The strongest quake on August 5, 6.9 in magnitude and at a relatively shallow depth, is large by any standard. But, as photos and video footage show, not all buildings collapsed. Among the landscape of devastation are many buildings that appear to have suffered little if any damage.

According to one estimate, 70% of buildings suffered serious damage, which means 30% did not. In many parts of the world, such as Japan, New Zealand and Chile, buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes of this scale and many of them do, repeatedly.




Read more:
Two types of tectonic plate activity create earthquake and tsunami risk on Lombok


About 70% of buildings suffered serious damage in the Lombok earthquakes, but some stood up to the shaking.
AAP, CC BY

Traditional buildings in most of Indonesia, including northern Lombok, were built of timber framing with thatched roofs. In an earthquake they flex and sway but rarely collapse. If they do, it is likely to happen slowly and incompletely and any falling roofing is relatively light and soft.

But over recent decades, building materials and methods have changed. Timber and thatch have become scarce and expensive and popular tastes have shifted towards houses that look, at least superficially, like those of the global modern middle class – little villas with plastered walls, glass windows and tiled roofs.

But underneath the (often picturesque) facades, the construction is of brick or concrete blocks, held together only with weak mortar and supported by little or no framing. The better ones may have some concrete framing, but the quality of the concrete is usually poor and the steel reinforcing, especially at joints, is minimal. These facades do not reliably support infill materials and they are heavy when they fall.

Roof tiles are only loosely secured and ceilings below them are too light to catch them. If one had to design a system of construction for easy collapse and maximum injuries, this would be the perfect model.

Learning from past earthquakes

In Yogyakarta, in central Java, in May 2006, at least 150,000 houses of exactly this kind collapsed in less than a minute of shaking caused by a lesser earthquake than the largest in Lombok. Nearly 6,000 people were killed and thousands more injured. Farm animals housed in traditional buildings mostly survived.

A massive international humanitarian aid response and significant government programmes followed and within a year Yogyakarta was largely rebuilt – an astonishing result in the circumstances. Both government and international agencies went to considerable lengths to design safer methods, educate people about them and offer support, materials and incentives to “build back better”.

An expert report ten years later (unfortunately not yet published) concluded that:

The overall poor quality of construction however has almost certainly placed more people at increased risk of larger, heavier building elements collapsing upon them.

Northern Lombok has not had this kind of experience in recent decades and, because it is a relatively poor part of Indonesia, until 20 years ago, many people outside the urban areas lived in traditional houses. However, over recent years, partly as a result of tourism revenues, many houses have been built or extended in the new style and construction.

Here too, construction standards tend to be low, and even lower for poorer households. The video evidence shows exactly the kind of failures as in Yogyakarta 12 years ago, because of exactly the same basic weaknesses of design. The next earthquake, wherever it may be in Indonesia, will almost certainly have the same effects.

Houses in Lombok collapsed because of design failures similar to those in Yogyakarta 12 years ago.
AAP, CC BY

No easy solutions

A recent article makes similar points and blames inadequate enforcement of building codes and lack of government commitment. Unfortunately the reality is not so simple.

The Yogyakarta experience shows that even with a massive campaign by government and international agencies, and with the fear of earthquakes still fresh in people’s minds, the rebuilding was little better than what it replaced. Building codes do exist in Indonesia, but they are rarely followed, easily evaded, and rarely enforced, least of all at the level of owner-built local housing.

Even if there were a serious effort to implement codes, it would be undermined by well-known levels of bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, as well as public resistance and evasion. It would also have unintended consequences, including making decent housing even less affordable, especially for poorer people.

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The Conversation

There will be no easy solutions, but national education in basic structural design principles, subsidised design, production and distribution of cheap and simple hardware for mitigating the most common failures of design and financial incentives for appropriate construction might be worthwhile places to start.

Graeme MacRae, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Laos disaster reminds us that local people are too often victims of dam development


Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle; Giuseppe Forino, University of Newcastle, and Tien Le Thuy Du, University of Houston

On July 22, the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam under construction in Laos’ Attapeu Province collapsed. Flash flooding inundated eight villages, killing at least 29 people and leaving 131 officially reported missing. The final number of casualties could be much higher.

Disaster response activities are ongoing. The deputy secretary of the province claimed that more than 1,100 people were still unaccounted for, as of July 27. Laotian authorities are investigating whether the collapse was caused by heavy rainfall, inadequate construction standards, or a combination of the two.

The dam is part of a larger joint venture between Laotian, Thai and South Korean companies, which are reportedly helping with the rescue and restoration effort. The companies are also sending experts to assess the damage and investigate the cause of the disaster.




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This is not the first time that a hydropower project in Southeast Asia has been in the spotlight. It again raises questions about the benefits of such projects for local communities, considering the risks to which local people are exposed.

Not only do large developments interfere with ecosystems, but they often affect local communities even in the absence of catastrophe. This was indeed the case for the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy project, which had already cost many villagers their land and livelihoods before disaster struck.

As much as we tend to focus on the “natural” triggers for disaster – in this case heavy rain – the reality is more nuanced. These incidents are often also the result of flawed development, and as such they are social and political disasters too.

So, was this disaster just a terrible accident? Or is it emblematic of a development agenda that is out of sync with the needs of a healthy environment and local community?

The impacts of hydropower

Hydropower projects in Southeast Asia, and particularly in the Mekong catchment, have long exposed vulnerable communities to risk while developers reap the rewards. Millions of people depend on the Mekong river for water, fish, transport and irrigation.

Dam developers promise that their projects will deliver a wide array of benefits: renewable energy, bountiful reservoir fishing, profitable reforestation, harmonised water allocation, and better flood control. But these controversial projects often dramatically change local livelihoods for the worse.

A map of dams on the lower Mekong.
ICEM

We have seen this before, both in Laos and in its neighbouring countries. The Nam Song Diversion Dam, completed in 1996, affected more than 1,000 Laotian families – first by removing their access to productive agricultural land and causing a severe decline in fish stocks. Since then, deliberate water surges – for electricity generation – have been blamed for three deaths and widespread loss of boats and fishing equipment.

The Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project boasted rigorous social and environmental safeguards – but these soon became broken promises. This project also followed a disturbing trend relating to hydropower development in Southeast Asia: the dispossession of already marginalised ethnic minorities.

In neighbouring Cambodia, the Kamchay Dam displaced thousands of people, jeopardised their livelihoods, and caused irreparable damage to the environment. The Pak Chom Dam in Thailand similarly put local livelihoods at risk.

So despite providing clean renewable energy, many hydropower projects in Southeast Asia have also deepened inequality and marginalisation.




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People vs profit

This latest disaster should therefore be seen in the context of broader criticism concerning damming the Mekong and its tributaries.

Some analysts have argued that local communities in the Mekong delta are being caught in the middle of a cross-border water grab. Private and state-backed actors from China, Thailand, and Laos profit handsomely from hydropower projects, but critics argue that all too often the negative impacts of dams are ignored.

Local protests against development projects are often suppressed, and governments regularly align with private interests to maximise profit and protect developers from any repercussions. In recent years, affected communities have made some gains, but displacement and disempowerment are still rife.

The exploitation of the Mekong river is only likely to increase. China has a clear energy agenda and Laos aspires to be the “battery of Southeast Asia”. But while exporting much of its hydroelectric power to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, the Laotian government imports the same power back at increased cost from Thailand. Local people feel that something is amiss.

Communities from the Mekong villages of Mo Phu and Pak Paew villages have been told to prepare for resettlement due to the planned construction of the Phou Ngoy Dam. They face uncertainty as to the living conditions at their new location.

Development isn’t always positive

The World Bank ranked Laos as the 13th fastest growing economy of 2016, and the Asian Development Bank predicts that its economy will grow at 7% a year for the remainder of this decade.

Hydropower is a major contributor to this economic growth. But hydropower projects promote displacement, put livelihoods and food security at risk, and destroy biodiversity and ecosystems. Without considering both international and local social and environmental costs, hydropower development exacerbates everyday struggles for many people in Southeast Asia.

Many of the destructive projects on the Mekong are supported by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. These powerful international stakeholders should not be above criticism.




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The kind of development that is primarily concerned with profits for corporations always occurs at the expense of the most marginalised communities and individuals. All too often their voices are silenced and political accountability is absent.

The ConversationThe evidence indicates that it may not be so simple to decouple economic growth from environmental harm.

Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle; Giuseppe Forino, PhD Candidate in Disaster Management, University of Newcastle, and Tien Le Thuy Du, PhD Candidate in Geosensing and water management, University of Houston

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

After devastating earthquakes, Indonesia must embrace radical change


Jonatan A Lassa, Charles Darwin University

An earthquake on Lombok island in Indonesia has left 98 people dead and 20,000 people homeless, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency.

Around 70% of North Lombok’s housing stock has either collapsed or been severely damaged. Just a week earlier, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake hit a nearby region, destroying tens of houses and claiming 10 lives, and injuring more than a dozen people.




Read more:
Two types of tectonic plate activity create earthquake and tsunami risk on Lombok


As the area recovers, we need to ask: how can Indonesia address its vulnerability to earthquakes?

We know that Indonesia can improve its response to natural disasters, which has happened with tsunami preparedness. The next challenge is to apply these lessons to seismic activity.

Prepare for tourists

Thousands of tourists were caught in panics after both earthquakes. It’s time for Indonesia’s emergency systems to address the vulnerability of foreign visitors as well as its own citizens.

With tourism on the rise in many earthquake-prone areas, solid preparation measures need to be put in place. Vulnerable hotels and fragile houses can jeopardise tourism’s future.

The past 30 years have been filled with wake-up calls. A 1992 earthquake that struck Flores island caused 15,000 houses to collapse in a single district alone. It took almost 20 years for tourism to recover.

More technology isn’t the answer

It’s often easier to attract international funding to sophisticated new technology for hazard prediction and monitoring – for example, the Australia-funded Inasafe, which has the potential to help government to develop scenarios for better planning, preparedness and response activities, and the US-funded Inaware which is a disaster management tool aimed at improving Indonesia’s risk assessment and early warning systems.

At the same time, it is not clear how these technological advancements will serve to help small hotels or households in earthquake-prone regions. What people really need is need help to build structures in accordance with proper construction codes, so that they don’t become death-traps during an earthquake.

This points to a deeper problem. Such building codes already exist, but local governments are currently showing little desire to comply with national building regulations.

For example, before 2011, less than 12% of local governments adopted and endorsed the Building Law 2002. By 2016 that figure had risen to 60% – an improvement, but still not enough.

In North Lombok, where most houses collapsed in the recent earthquakes, the local government only endorsed national building regulations in 2011. It will take years for the local administrators to actually implement them.

The no-regreat approach

To save lives, we need to move beyond the idea that perfect risk assessment exists.

Seismic mitigation measures need to start immediately, at the local level. Thousands building are built every day and right now, while many are rebuilding after disaster, is the time for local governments to put into practise the codes and standards that exist at a national level.

Local and central governments can embrace innovation. Central government and local governments in Indonesia must focus on transforming the way houses are built, including checking earthquake preparedness when issuing building permits.

Can local government radically audit all vulnerable houses? And can we create a machine of local bureaucrats who can deal with the risk assessment on every single house in earthquake prone regions?

It may seem hard, but good practices are already available. Apart from creating incentives for local engineers, contractors, and building consultants to be mindful of seismic measures, local governments can also gradually audit critical public buildings, which are particularly crucial to disaster to response (and may be especially dangerous if they collapse).

Indonesia could even follow California’s example and publicly shame the owners of buildings that the building code.

A sign from California alerting passers-by to a potentially dangerous building.

It will require radical reform in public administration, including construction at local level. Without this radical change, the status quo will remain and people will continued to be killed by their houses when moderate to big earthquakes hit their area.




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The ConversationThe present approach is failing. Stronger political and administrative commitments are needed at all levels.

Jonatan A Lassa, Senior Lecturer, Humanitarian Emergency and Disaster Management, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Two types of tectonic plate activity create earthquake and tsunami risk on Lombok


Jane Cunneen, Curtin University and Phil R. Cummins, Australian National University

Several large earthquakes have struck the Indonesian island of Lombok in the past week, with the largest quake killing at least 98 people and injuring hundreds more.

Thousands of buildings are damaged and rescue efforts are being hampered by power outages, a lack of phone reception in some areas and limited evacuation options.

The majority of large earthquakes occur on or near Earth’s tectonic plate boundaries – and these recent examples are no exception. However, there are some unique conditions around Lombok.

The recent earthquakes have occurred along a specific zone where the Australian tectonic plate is starting to move over the Indonesian island plate – and not slide underneath it, as occurs further to the south of Lombok.

This means there is earthquake and tsunami risk not only along the plate boundary south of Lombok and Bali, but also from this zone of thrusting to the north.




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Jammed subduction zone

Tectonic plates are slabs of the Earth’s crust that move very slowly over our planet’s surface. Indonesia sits along the “Pacific Ring of Fire” where several tectonic plates collide and many volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.

Some of these earthquakes are very large, such as the magnitude 9.1 quake off the west coast of Sumatra that generated the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This earthquake occurred along the Java-Sumatra subduction zone, where the Australian tectonic plate moves underneath Indonesia’s Sunda plate.

But to the east of Java, the subduction zone has become “jammed” by the Australian continental crust, which is much thicker and more buoyant than the oceanic crust that moves beneath Java and Sumatra.

The Australian continental crust can’t be pushed under the Sunda plate, so instead it’s starting to ride over the top of it. This process is known as back-arc thrusting.

The data from the recent Lombok earthquakes suggest they are associated with this back-arc zone. The zone extends north of islands stretching from eastern Java to the island of Wetar, just north of Timor (as shown in map below).

Earthquake hazards along plate boundaries near Indonesia. The dates in the map show historical earthquakes, and Mw indicates earthquake magnitude.
Edited by P. Cummins from an original by Koulali and co-authors

Historically, large earthquakes have also occurred along this back-arc thrust near Lombok, particularly in the 19th century but also more recently. (Dates and sizes of past earthquakes are shown in the map above).

It is thought that this zone of back-arc thrusting will eventually form a new subduction zone to the north along from eastern Java to the island of Wetar just north of Timor.




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Tsunami risk

Lombok’s recent earthquakes – the August 5 6.9 magnitude quake plus a number of aftershocks, and the 6.4 magnitude earthquake just a week before it – occurred in northern Lombok under land, and were quite shallow.

Recent earthquakes on Lombok were also felt on the neighbouring island of Bali.
US Geological Survey

Earthquakes on land can sometimes cause undersea landslides and generate a tsunami wave. But when shallow earthquakes rupture the sea floor, much larger and more dangerous tsunamis can occur.

Due to the large number of shallow earthquakes along the plate boundaries, Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to tsunamis. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 165,000 people along the coast of Sumatra, and in 2006 over 600 people were killed by a tsunami impacting the south coast of Java.




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The region around Lombok has a history of tsunamis. In 1992 a magnitude 7.9 earthquake occurred just north of the island of Flores and generated a tsunami that swept away coastal villages, killing more than 2,000.

Nineteenth century earthquakes in this region also caused large tsunamis that killed many people.

The areas around Lombok and the islands nearby, including Bali, are at high risk for earthquakes and tsunamis occurring both to the north and the south of the island.

The ConversationUnfortunately, large earthquakes like the ones this week cannot be predicted, so an understanding of the hazards is vital if we are to be prepared for future events.

Jane Cunneen, Research Fellow, Curtin University and Phil R. Cummins, Professor, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Aftershocks hit Papua New Guinea as it recovers from a remote major earthquake


Sabin Zahirovic, University of Sydney; Gilles Brocard, University of Sydney; John Connell, University of Sydney, and Romain Beucher, University of Melbourne

Another powerful aftershock hit Papua New Guinea this weekend as the recovery effort continues following February’s deadly magnitude 7.5 earthquake, with many thousands of people dependent on humanitarian aid.

Aid organisations such as CARE Australia and UNICEF are still seeking donations. The Australian government has sent medical staff and other support to help.

Some have criticised the PNG government’s efforts as “too slow”.




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But the earthquake highlights the challenge for emerging economies like PNG in deploying relief efforts into remote areas to deal with natural disasters.

And the same geological features that make PNG a rich source of mineral deposits are also part of its earthquake problem.

The earthquake hits

The February earthquake struck the western Highlands provinces of the Pacific island nation, and a series of aftershocks, including several of magnitude 6 or more, continued to shake the region during the following weeks.

Although parts of PNG are particularly earthquake-prone (especially in the north and the islands, along the plate boundary), February’s earthquake was quite exceptional.

It occurred in a usually less active part of the plate boundary and was remarkably powerful when compared with the short (modern) instrumental earthquake record. The strength and frequency of the aftershocks has posed an additional threat to local populations and key economic infrastructure.

On average 10-20 major earthquakes (magnitudes 7 and greater) occur on Earth every year. Most of them occur far from densely populated regions, such that only a few draw media attention.

The mountainous regions of New Guinea, known as the fold and thrust belt, have been geologically active for millions of years. But the long recurrence interval of major earthquakes (every few centuries) combined with the short period of the instrument records (just a few decades) gives us the false impression that seismicity is uncommon in this region.

The February earthquake occurred due to the activation of a major fault system in the forested foothills, between the Papuan highlands to the north and the Fly River lowlands to the south.

Australia collides

The Papuan highlands have risen due to the collision between the Australian and Caroline/Pacific tectonic plates over the past five million years.

An animation of Australia’s tectonic journey as it broke away from Gondwana more than 100 million years ago. (Credit: Sabin Zahirovic)

Despite this collision, the Australian plate continues to move at about 7 cm a year to the northeast, in geological terms a quite remarkable speed, leading to a build-up of strain in the continental crust.

Much of this strain is released at the plate boundary along northern New Guinea, usually with more frequent but less powerful swarms of earthquakes. It is this motion, driven by the churning interior of our planet, that leads to major adjustments to the GPS datum and reference coordinates for the entire Australian continent.

But few people are aware that this very motion of the Australian continent is what causes the seismic and volcanic activity in New Guinea and parts of Southeast Asia.

As Australia moves northward, the entire New Guinea margin acts as a bulldozer, collecting Pacific islands, seamounts and other topographic features. New Guinea represents the leading edge of the advancing Australian continent, which causes continental crust to fold and crumple over a broad region.

This is a well-known process in plate tectonics, where the oceanic plates are known to behave quite rigidly, whereas the continental regions tend to deform over broader diffuse boundaries that resemble plasticine over geological timeframes.

When continents are squeezed during tectonic collisions, the crust crumples and folds over geological timescales. (Credit: Romain Beucher)

But the continental deformation process results in poorly defined (often due to the thick tropical vegetation cover) and intermittently active fault systems in the continent.

Over the duration of mountain building in the past five million years, the areas of highest deformation have shifted across the range. Today most of the deformation in PNG takes place north of the mountainous area, where it generates a lot of earthquakes.

Underground riches at risk

Some substantial crumpling of the continental crust still occurs across the southern foothills. The folding and thrusting has generated geologically young folds, within which a large part of PNG’s gas and oil wealth has accumulated.

The intense tectonic activity has also led to the enrichment of mineral resources, including mines sourcing gold, copper, silver, nickel, cobalt and a suite of other ore types.

Distribution of the aftershocks magnitude 4+ since the main quake (as of April 9, 2018). The size and colour (small to large, yellow to red) indicate aftershock magnitude and D+ the number of days after main shock. The white shaded ellipse represents the area of greatest slip during the main shock. Green diamonds represent the main gas fields.
USGS/Gilles Brocard, Author provided

It is this tectonic activity that determines the delicate interplay of economic benefits from raw materials, and the often-devastating and usually-unpredictable effects of natural disasters on society.

Although the February earthquake occurred at the very heart of one of the largest and newest gas fields in the country, the industrial installations, at the highest international standards, have not suffered major damage from the tremors.

But the ongoing disaster triggered a temporary halt in gas extraction, as the facilities require inspections and repairs. Unfortunately, and unusually, the earthquakes have struck in some of the most remote parts of the country.

Coping with disaster

Hela province is one of the poorest in PNG and its people are unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with a disaster of this scale. As many as half a million people were reported to be affected by the earthquake. At least 145 people reported killed.




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Five active volcanoes on my Asia Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ watch-list right now


The Highlands Highway, the one real road into the region, was badly damaged and this is the major source of food and medicines. Many feeder roads have gone.

Papua New Guineans are resilient but it is likely that more external assistance will be needed to ensure that a physical disaster does not become a greater human tragedy.

Even so the full extent of the disaster has still to be revealed, while aftershocks continue to trigger secondary hazards including major landslides that have isolated a large number of communities.

The ConversationNot only are local communities facing the immediate hazards of further earthquakes and landslides, they face a protracted and costly recovery ahead.

Sabin Zahirovic, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Sydney; Gilles Brocard, Post doctoral associate, University of Sydney; John Connell, Professor of Human Geography, University of Sydney, and Romain Beucher, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Computational Geodynamics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lessons not learned: Darwin’s paying the price after Cyclone Marcus


File 20180326 85338 1rd90p2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fallen trees and power lines are two of the main hazards that could have been reduced with better planning for cyclones.
Geoff Whalan/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Akhilesh Surjan, Charles Darwin University; Deepika Mathur, Charles Darwin University; Jonatan A Lassa, Charles Darwin University, and Supriya Mathew, Charles Darwin University

Darwin was directly in the path of Cyclone Marcus and suffered severe impacts from wind gusts up to 130km/hour on Saturday, March 17. Northern Territory authorities made no declaration of emergency, but the Insurance Council of Australia declared it a “catastrophe” for the Greater Darwin region. Marcus is considered the city’s second-worst cyclone since Tracy, which devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974.

The good news is that no deaths have been reported. But had it been a category 4 or 5 cyclone, instead of category 2, how would the city have fared?

The post-Marcus chaos in Greater Darwin is not just “a real wake-up call”, but a typical case of lessons yet to be learned. For example, large shallow-rooted trees planted after Cyclone Tracy and overhead power lines brought down in the cyclone were both hazards that could have been avoided. Darwin is now engaged in a long, difficult and costly clean-up.

Fallen trees posed one of the biggest hazards during and after the cyclone.

Cyclones are to be expected

Indigenous knowledge as well as the Bureau of Meteorology’s historical records confirm that tropical cyclones are not new to Northern Australia. According to the BOM:

There are on average 7.7 days per season when a cyclone exists in the Northern Region.

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So was there complacency among some residents, as emergency services warned? Did infrastructure providers underestimate the threat? In hot and humid weather, over one-third of Darwin’s population went without power for several days and safe-to-drink tap water for 48 hours. Communication networks were patchy for days.

What was the reluctance in seeking immediate support from other states despite banks and insurers considering this a catastrophe? Was it due to Commonwealth disregard for the Top End in general?

How well has Darwin coped?

There have been at least two opposing views on the impact of the cyclone. The first is a more optimistic one, largely because no one got killed or seriously injured. Community members spontaneously helped one another in the immediate aftermath.

On this view, although preparedness might have varied, people in general were prepared. Power outages for a few days were a “first world problem”. Most households were ready, for example, to use camping gas cookers.

Volunteers visited and helped vulnerable groups such as aged and sick people. Emergency responders, defence staff and infrastructure restoration teams are working tirelessly to return the city to normalcy.

On the other hand, Marcus uprooted thousands of trees across Greater Darwin, mostly African mahoganies, which were planted for revegetation after Tracy.

Large shallow-rooted trees proved to be a poor choice for revegetating Darwin after Cyclone Tracy.
Priyanka Surjan, Author provided

Around 25,800 of about 60,000 properties across Greater Darwin were cut off from power. Even after a week many are still living in darkness. Power outages had cascading effects: traffic signals weren’t working for days at many places and food was left to rot in the heat.

Water was cut off in places. For about 48 hours people were urged to boil tap water before drinking, cooking or brushing teeth. The Health Department issued a warning about melioidosis, a life-threatening disease spread by contact with soil, mud and surface water.

Fallen trees blocked many roads and caused mild to severe damage to residential, commercial and public premises. Outdoor areas were cordoned off for safety.

Educational institutions were closed for at least a day. People who didn’t own a car or were unable to drive were disadvantaged for almost three days until public transport was running again.

At several locations, tree branches are still hanging dangerously over roads, pavements, parks and roofs. Anywhere in the city or suburbs, you see major and minor roads, parks and beachfronts dotted with uprooted trees and fallen branches. The roadside piles of logs and green waste are likely to remain there for some time, as their removal is not an “emergency priority”.

What does a city do with so much waste?

Waste facilities are struggling to cope. The morning after the cyclone, vehicles queued for hours at the green waste facility. It is yet to be ascertained if arrangements can be made to manage the huge quantities of green waste.

Vehicles loaded with green waste queued for hours at the waste management facility.

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) guidelines note that waste debris presents opportunities as “either a source of income or as a reconstruction material, and [can] reduce burdens on natural resources that might otherwise be harvested for reconstruction”.

An evaluation of green waste would help understand its recovery value. Research suggests that disaster waste management can account for 5–10% of the total recovery costs, often exceeding that of health care and education.

In October 2004, a typhoon devastated Toyooka in Japan, producing 45,000 tonnes of waste – 1.5 years of the city’s usual waste production. The 2011 tsunami in Japan produced the equivalent of of 9 years’ worth of municipal solid waste in Iwate prefecture and 14 years’ worth in Miyagi prefecture.

What can Darwin learn from this?

Local government is considering removing mahogany trees, which were introduced after Tracy, because of their fast growth and the expansive shade their dense canopies provide.

Globally, environmental dimensions of disasters are less recognised compared with social and economic dimensions. However, the loss of dense trees and the valuable ecosystem services these offer calls for environmental recovery to be a priority as well.

A 2013 study reveals that large sums of taxpayers’ money is typically spent following disasters, whereas increasing pre-disaster investments can achieve cost savings and resilience.

As an example, the territory government is offering relief payments between A$250 and A$650 for households that were without power for 72 hours or more. The importance of putting power lines underground was recognised more than a decade ago but the work is incomplete due to lack of political will.

This is the time to ask questions such as: what will be the scale of devastation and cost and duration of recovery if a category 4 or 5 cyclone hits Darwin? The next cyclone after Marcus, Nora, was expected to be a category 4 storm but was downgraded to category 3 when it hit the western coast of Cape York on March 25.

Why not prioritise transformation of critical infrastructure, such as shifting all power lines underground? What role can cost-benefit analysis play to achieve resilience to category 4 or 5 cyclones and other natural disasters?

The ConversationMore broadly, how can we learn from the past? What are the new lessons we can take forward from Cyclone Marcus? And how do we inspire a city to work towards creating “Resilient Darwin’”?

Akhilesh Surjan, Associate Professor, Humanitarian, Emergency and Disaster Management Studies, Charles Darwin University; Deepika Mathur, Researcher in sustainable architecture, Charles Darwin University; Jonatan A Lassa, Senior Lecturer, Humanitarian Emergency and Disaster Management, Charles Darwin University, and Supriya Mathew, Postdoctoral researcher, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nepal earthquake reconstruction won’t succeed until the vulnerability of survivors is addressed



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More than 600,000 buildings were fully damaged in the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
Jason von Meding, Author provided

Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle; Hari Darshan Shrestha; Humayun Kabir, University of Dhaka, and Iftekhar Ahmed, University of Newcastle

In April 2015 the Gorkha earthquake brought Nepal’s vulnerability sharply into focus. Alongside massive damage to the built environment, the terrible impact on the people of Nepal sent shockwaves around the world.

Despite good intentions to rebuild Nepal to be more resilient, 30 months on little progress has been made. Of more than 400,000 homes that were earmarked for reconstruction, only 12% have been rebuilt. Little of the US$4.4 billion in aid pledged for reconstruction has been disbursed.

The Nepali government instituted a reconstruction program in October 2015 that identifies beneficiaries and entitles them to three instalments of compensation. The payments are dependent on progress and building code compliance. Those who do not own land are locked out of reconstruction support.


Read more: The science behind the Nepal earthquake


Nepal has robust building codes, developed over recent years. Serious efforts to implement the codes predate the Gorkha earthquake.

Unfortunately, despite such efforts, there are still more than five million existing buildings standing after the earthquake that are not to code. Many of these are “informal” and built by traditional masons. There is also a large stock of old, dilapidated buildings. These buildings will be a particular risk in Nepal when future earthquakes strike.

Widespread retrofitting would protect lives and property in the future. Strictly speaking, all new buildings must meet the code – something difficult to monitor and enforce. Forcing people into compliance also has drawbacks: it can lead people to bypass it by unlawful means, and can be particularly onerous for the poor.

Nepal needs a strategy for “safe building” that is acutely aware of the resource inequalities and other social impediments that block progress on code compliance.

Many people live in informal homes in Nepal.
Ifte Ahmed

Housing typology and quality in Nepal

Of the more than 600,000 buildings that were fully damaged by the earthquake, most predated building codes and were built from stone and mud. The death toll of around 9,000 was lower than may have been expected, considering the number of buildings destroyed. By contrast, the 2010 Haiti earthquake is estimated to have claimed more than 300,000 lives while fewer than 300,000 buildings were fully damaged.


Read more: Two years after the earthquake, why has Nepal failed to recover?


Traditional building knowledge is clearly a valuable asset in determining how to save lives in an earthquake – but technical advances have been made that must now be integrated during reconstruction. The five million buildings that survived the earthquake require urgent retrofitting.

In Nepal, 80% of human settlement is often referred to as “informal”. These are households that are not in compliance with building norms and planning regulations. This can be a measure of marginalisation and can bring spatial segregation and discriminatory treatment.

In addition, Nepal is rapidly urbanising. The temptation in urban areas is to build higher, but in a country like Nepal this could have fatal consequences in an earthquake. Local engineers fear mass casualties if heavy, reinforced concrete structures (as are being widely built) collapse in the future.

Why has reconstruction stalled?

Rebuilding has been slowed by a range of technical, social and political challenges.
Jason von Meding

The government housing grant is available in three instalments on the basis of progress; Rs50,000 (US$477) upon signing an agreement; Rs150,000 (US$1,437) after completion up to plinth level; and Rs100,000 (US$958) upon completion of the structure.

More than 400,000 households entered into an agreement, but so far only 12% have completed the program.

The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) undertook a lengthy consultation period in the name of building back better. Development of a building code compliance process and a catalogue on rural housing took 18 months to produce and disseminate.

By the time guidance was finally available, many beneficiaries had spent the first instalment on other priorities – many of those affected struggle to provide for the basic needs of their families.

Due to the remoteness of many reconstruction properties in the mountainous terrain, checking for compliance is a major challenge. In addition to the delays in establishing a suitable mechanism, the NRA has been unable to provide enough technical experts in remote, rural areas to implement their own policy.


Read more: What can tourists do to help, not hinder, Nepal’s quake recovery?


Safe, affordable and high quality construction is possible

Safe building is inherently difficult in a developing country like Nepal. For many people, putting food on the table is a daily struggle. Investing in earthquake-resistant housing measures is simply not within reach.

Some in Nepal are forced to live in buildings that could fall down at any time.
Jason von Meding

In such situations, people are forced to accept acute risk in the course of just surviving. This includes living in buildings that might fall down at any time. In Nepal, people have continued with life since the 2015 earthquake and have reoccupied dangerous premises.

Beyond simply improving the effectiveness of building code enforcement, it’s important we don’t neglect social and economic aspects of the dilemma in Nepal. While affordability is critical, quality is achievable by adapting Indigenous building techniques. If safe building is valued, people would voluntarily comply with codes and regulations.

The ConversationThe potential for change will be wasted if we fail to understand and address the chronic vulnerability of people recovering from this disaster. Not everyone has the same access to opportunities and resources – so better codes and regulations only go so far.

Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle; Hari Darshan Shrestha, Associate professor Disaster Management and structural Engineering; Humayun Kabir, Professor, DRR expert, University of Dhaka, and Iftekhar Ahmed, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vietnam’s typhoon disaster highlights the plight of its poorest people


Chinh Luu, University of Newcastle and Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle

Six people lost their lives when Typhoon Doksuri smashed into central Vietnam on September 16, the most powerful storm in a decade to hit the country.

Although widespread evacuations prevented a higher death toll, the impact on the region’s most vulnerable people will be extensive and lasting.


Read more: Typhoon Haiyan: a perfect storm of corruption and neglect.


Government sources report that more than 193,000 properties have been damaged, including 11,000 that were flooded. The storm also caused widespread damage to farmland, roads, and water and electricity infrastructure. Quang Binh and Ha Tinh provinces bore the brunt of the damage.

Central Vietnam is often in the path of tropical storms and depressions that form in the East Sea, which can intensify to form tropical cyclones known as typhoons (the Pacific equivalent of an Atlantic hurricane).

Typhoon Doksuri developed and tracked exactly as forecast, meaning that evacuations were relatively effective in saving lives. What’s more, the storm moved quickly over the affected area, delivering only 200-300 mm of rainfall and sparing the region the severe flooding now being experienced in Thailand.

Doksuri is just one of a spate of severe tropical cyclones that have formed in recent weeks, in both the Pacific and Atlantic regions. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and, most recently, Maria have attracted global media coverage, much of it focused on rarely considered angles such as urban planning, poverty, poor development, politics, the media coverage of disasters – as well as the perennial question of climate change.

Disasters are finally being talked about as part of a discourse of systemic oppression – and this is a great step forward.

Vietnam’s vulnerability

In Vietnam, the root causes of disasters exist below the surface. The focus remains on the natural hazards that trigger disasters, rather than on the vulnerable conditions in which many people are forced to live.

Unfortunately, the limited national disaster data in Vietnam does not allow an extensive analysis of risk. Our research in central Vietnam is working towards filling this gap and the development of more comprehensive flood mitigation measures.

Central Vietnam has a long and exposed coastline. It consists of 14 coastal provinces and five provinces in the Central Highlands. The Truong Son mountain range rises to the west and the plains that stretch to the coast are fragmented and narrow. River systems are dense, short and steep, with rapid flows.

These physical characteristics often combine with widespread human vulnerability, to deadly effect. We can see this in the impact of Typhoon Doksuri, but also to a lesser extent in the region’s annual floods.

Flood risk map by province using Multi-Criteria Decision-Making method and the national disaster database.
Author provided

Rapid population growth, industrial development and agricultural expansion have all increased flood risk, especially in Vietnam’s riverine and coastal areas. Socially marginalised people often have to live in the most flood-prone places, sometimes as a result of forced displacement.

Floods and storms therefore have a disproportionately large effect on poorer communities. Most people in central Vietnam depend on their natural environment for their livelihood, and a disaster like Doksuri can bring lasting suffering to a region where 30-50% of people are already in poverty.

When disaster does strike, marginalised groups face even more difficulty because they typically lack access to public resources such as emergency relief and insurance.

The rural poor will be particularly vulnerable after this storm. Affected households have received limited financial support from the local government, and many will depend entirely on charity for their recovery.

Better research, less bureaucracy

This is not to say that Vietnam’s government did not mount a significant effect to prepare and respond to Typhoon Doksuri. But typically for Vietnam, where only the highest levels of government are trusted with important decisions, the response was bureaucratic and centralised.

This approach can overlook the input of qualified experts, and lead to decisions being taken without enough data about disaster risk.

Our research has generated a more detailed picture of disaster risk (focused on flood hazard) in the region. We have looked beyond historical loss statistics and collected data on hazards, exposure and vulnerability in Quang Nam province.

Left: flooding hazard map for Quang Nam province. Right: risk of flooding impacts on residents, calculated on the basis of flood hazards from the left map, plus people’s exposure and vulnerability.
Author provided

Our findings show that much more accurate, sensitive and targeted flood protection is possible. The challenge is to provide it on a much wider scale, particularly in poor regions of the world.

Reduce risk, and avoid creating new risk

An effective risk management approach can help to reduce the impacts of flooding in central Vietnam. Before a disaster ever materialises, we can work to reduce risk – and avoid activities that exacerbate it – for example land grabbing for development, displacing the poor, environmental degradation, discrimination against minorities.


Read more: Irma and Harvey: very different storms, but both affected by climate change.


It is critical that subject experts, particularly scientists, are involved in decisions about disaster risk – in Vietnam and around the world. There must be a shift to more proactive approaches, guided by deep knowledge both of the local context and of the latest scientific advances.

Our maps will help planners and politicians to recognise high-risk areas, prepare flood risk plans, and set priorities for both flood defences and responses to vulnerability. The maps are also valuable tools for communication.

The ConversationBut at the same time as emphasising data-driven decisions, we also need to advocate for a humanising approach in dealing with some of the most oppressed, marginalised, poor and disadvantaged members of the global community.

Chinh Luu, PhD candidate in Disaster Management, University of Newcastle and Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.