Wednesday, July 8

The Lombok disaster


Foreign tourists carry their belongings on the beach as they leave Gili Trawangan Island after an earthquake hit Lombok.

HOW many children today own an atlas or a globe? It has become too easy to tap a place name into a laptop and to view a location or set up a satnav system on a vehicle’s dashboard. Family journeys today are taken from outset point to destination point without as much as a family familiarising itself about where they are in the world.

On long haul flights between London and Kuala Lumpur and beyond to Kuching, I don’t watch movies but tune in to the flight tracker system. I always want to know where I am in the world at any place and time. Occasionally, I have been scolded by flight attendant for opening the window shutter to peer down on a sunlit landscape below, but what I have seen in an atlas turns into reality.

Alfred Russel Wallace not only brought Borneo to the world’s eyes in his 1869 publication ‘The Malay Archipelago’, but also put the Indonesian island of Lombok literally on the map of his travels. In a private letter to his sponsoring agent in London, he stated, “More than half of the Island of Lombock consists of rugged volcanic mountains, which are quite incapable of cultivation.”

In his book, he devoted two chapters to Lombok’s birdlife and its occupants’ customs, yet his first chapter, entitled ‘Physical Geography’, painted a better picture of its geological history. He referred to Lombok as part of a volcanic belt, providing “scores of active and hundreds of extinct volcanoes. In the whole region occupied by this vast line of volcanoes, earthquakes are of continual recurrence, slight shocks being felt at intervals of every few weeks or months, while more severe ones, shaking down whole villages and doing more or less injury to life and probably are sure to happen, in one part or another of this district, almost every year”. Wallace was way ahead of his time in recognising earth movements but we all had to wait another 80 or so years after his publication to learn about Plate Tectonics.

What happened at Lombok?

Were these earthquakes expected? If Wallace was alive today he would have replied with an inevitable, “Yes!” All earthquakes experienced in an arc from Sumatra through Java, Bali, Lombok, Timor, and other islands to New Guinea are caused by the collision of the mega Indo-Australian and the Eurasian plates, with the micro Sunda plate squashed between. Normally, the denser Australian plate slides downwards upon meeting the lighter Eurasian plate to create the Java deep water ocean trench to the south of Lombok.

A woman carries usable items from the ruins of her house in Kayangan district after the Lombok earthquake. – Reuters photos

This thrusting of plates together over millions of years has created a series of thrust faults passing though the Sunda Sea. On this occasion, the Australian plate forcibly overrode the Sunda plate to thrust up the north of Lombok by 25cm and depress the rest of the island by 5cm to 15cm above mean sea level. The resulting earthquake’s epicentre was located to the north of Lombok at a relatively shallow depth of 31km below sea level.


On July 29, a shockwave, recording 6.5 on the Richter scale, had been felt. This quake caused 20 deaths. The Aug 5 mega quake of 7.0 hitting the slopes of Mount Rinjani really shook the island, as well as Bali, and the island of Gili. This earthquake alerted Indonesian authorities to issue tsunami warnings and, in the Sunda Sea, the sea-level rose by 10cm to 13.5cm. People raced to higher ground just in case. The North Lombok region, where this particular earthquake was most felt, had experienced such severe quakes in the past. Thirty-nine years ago, 37 deaths were reported, while only five years ago an earthquake caused an extensive collapse of buildings but no one was killed.

The recent massive quakes, with 500 or more aftershocks, have resulted in the loss of more than 320 lives, for its timing at 7.46pm saw many people at mosques in evening prayers. Mosques crumbled and in Bali temples also collapsed.

Over 1,000 people were reported as injured and over 680,000 homes destroyed with several hundred thousand people displaced. Our prayers go out to all the populace of an island of only an area of 4,500 sq km. Fortunately, rescue teams and aid agencies worldwide have tried extremely hard to ameliorate the lives of those most affected. As subsequent tremors occur and more bodies are extricated from the rubble the ultimate death toll is likely to rise.

Picking up the pieces

With thousands of people sleeping under the stars for fear of further devastation and thousands of tourists being evacuated, North Lombok, where the most serious damage occurred, represents a war-torn mass of rubble. The foreshocks, actual shocks, and subsequent tremors have seen nature’s devastation at its worst. With electricity lines down blackouts occurred, traffic lights failed as people tried to escape their localities, and landslides blocked roads.

Rescuers and policemen walk on top of a collapsed mosque as they try to find survivors in Pemenang, Lombok.

Airport terminals were slightly damaged but runways remained intact. Thus, Lombok airport was inundated with tourists trying to flee the disaster zone. Ferry services were severely disrupted. The beaches looked like refugee camps as the tourists awaited boats. When the boats arrived the worst of human nature reared its ugly head as people fought to scramble aboard. Sadly, some of the opportunist boatmen bargained with people over the cost of fares.

Nature, to include human nature, certainly took its toll. Buildings and houses were destroyed but in the fullness of time these can be replaced, unlike the tragic loss of human lives. We can blame nature for this event, but in a known, tectonically unstable area such as Lombok, Bali and Java, questions must be asked as to why, in our age of new technology, we cannot predict such events to give people ample warning? Earth movement monitors exist in some of the world’s most unstable areas. Were such instruments in place on Lombok and the surrounding islands?

Whenever a natural disaster hits any country in the world, millions of dollars of public money is spent in the costs of moratoriums. This is all done in hindsight, when the same amount of money could have been spent beforehand to help reduce the loss of human and indeed animal life. Compensation is always the cry in our modern materialist society.

Worldwide, we regularly read of earthquakes, flooding of river floodplains and former delta areas, landslides and coastal inundations with subsequent loss of lives but we need to ask ourselves the question, “Why were speculative developers or even individuals allowed to build houses and even housing estates on land susceptible to the vagaries of nature?”

Local planning authorities need to heed the advice of civil engineers and frequently ask, “What if …?” Building and construction companies and, indeed, local and national governments must ensure that their speculative pursuits do not exceed human safety levels. In such potentially disaster prone environments, evacuation procedures must be available to all inhabitants as also to rescue and emergency services, to include hospital and ambulance services, the fire service, police, highways, the military, and potential voluntary civil agencies responsible for sheltering and feeding all evacuees, with precise details of evacuation centres. Such a “What if …?” plan is not impossible to devise. Equally, travel agents should issue basic warnings of the potential environmental and consequential risks to tourists visiting such exotic places. In short, greater accountability is needed.

A footnote

We should all pray for those lives departed from the Lombok earthquake and their families in mourning. Please, say a minute prayer for me as I shall be visiting the small island of Vulcano, off the coast of northern Sicily, for my short summer holiday. Composed of four volcanoes, one of which emits gases, whilst, in other areas, natural thermal mud baths and sulphur bubbling pools may be found.

I do not question my choice of a break on one of the Aeolian Islands. Am I taking a risk in visiting such an area, where the active volcano Stromboli lights up the darkest of Mediterranean skies with its incandescent firework display? I don’t think so, for I have researched this island’s volcanic history well and can pin point it on an atlas map and on the globe.

For further reading, look for ‘The Malay Archipelago’ by Alfred Russel Wallace (1869) and ‘Alfred Russel Wallace Letters from the Malay Archipelago’, edited by John Van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker (2015).