Source: ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) 
Date: 22 January 2021 

Key points:

  • Indonesia's meteorology agency has warned of a potential increase in natural disasters up until March
  • Activists say deforestation and environmental destruction contribute to disasters in Indonesia
  • Indonesia has lost 9.4 million hectares of primary forest in the past 20 years, according to Global Forest Watch

The year has only just begun, but already Indonesia has been hit with fatal earthquakes, deadly landslides and volcanic eruptions.

The Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said there had been a staggering 171 natural disasters in Indonesia in the first three weeks of 2021 alone.

"Most are in the form of floods, hurricanes and landslides," Professor Wiku Adisasmito from BNPB, who is also the national COVID-19 task force spokesperson, said in a press conference this week.

In the month of January last year, Indonesia recorded 297 disasters, including floods in the Jakarta metropolitan area and landslides in West Java.

But this year's disasters have been more deadly — 160 people died so far in January 2021, compared to 91 people who lost their lives in natural disasters in January 2020.

Environmental disasters are not unusual for Indonesia, with the country recording a total of 2,291 disasters in 2020.

The archipelago also sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates collide, causing frequent volcanic activity as well as earthquakes.

But environmentalists say forest destruction and climate change are impacting the severity of the disasters.

Greenpeace Indonesia told the ABC that floods, landslides, and forest fires had dominated the list of disasters in Indonesia in recent years, particularly in areas where forest conditions were "already critical".

"It's strongly related to the accumulated damage to forests that have an impact on climate change," said Arie Rompas, the forest campaign team leader at Greenpeace Indonesia.

So the ecosystem is disrupted and this is implicated in floods, landslides, drought and forest fires.

 Arie Rompas

Thousands of people have been displaced after a deadly earthquake in Sulawesi.(Source: BNPB)

Almost a million people displaced

South Kalimantan on Borneo island declared a state of emergency last week, after heavy rainfall and flooding displaced tens of thousands of people.

"In my entire life, this is the worst flood ever," local resident Ratna Dewi Sartika told the ABC.

She said that in some areas the water level rose to as high as three metres and many residents were trapped in their houses.

On Friday last week, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake in West Sulawesi killed at least 90 people and has left thousands homeless.

Days after that deadly earthquake, Semeru volcano in East Java erupted, spewing hot ash clouds as far as 4.5 kilometres away.

Villages in the mountains have been told to stay on alert for ongoing volcanic activity.

And earlier this month, landslides were reported at Cihanjuang Village in the Sumedang district of West Java, 150 kilometres south-east of Jakarta.

Local authorities in West Java said a total of 40 victims who died in the landslide have been found.

The BNPB said at least 160 people have died, more than 960 were injured and more than 930,000 people have been displaced in total due to the series of disasters.

Earlier this week, President Joko Widodo visited Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan to monitor the floods that have inundated the area for more than a week.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits a camp for people displaced by an earthquake in Sulawesi.(Source: BNPB)

He said Borneo island hadn't experienced flooding in half a century.

"The rainfall was very high for almost 10 consecutive days, so the capacity of the Barito River overflowed to 10 districts," Mr Widodo said during an online press conference on Monday.

A day later, Mr Widodo also visited the places and victims affected by the earthquake in West Sulawesi.

Ridwan Alimuddin, a local resident in West Sulawesi, said the local Government's response "wasn't optimal".

He said it seemed that the assistance was more focused on Mamuju, the capital city of West Sulawesi province, while the most affected areas were three regencies close to the epicentre.

"We could see the delay [of distributing aid], many displaced people have put signboards on the road to ask for donations," Mr Alimuddin told the ABC.

"Recently people were fighting over aid packages when the cars distributing relief came."

Environmentalists say deforestation is contributing to natural disasters in Indonesia. (Source: Greenpeace)

Indonesia has lost millions of hectares of forest

While the Indonesian Government said floods were due to high rainfall, environmental organisations and activists said deforestation and other environmental destruction were also to blame for some of the recent disasters.

Aida Greenbury, a zero-deforestation campaigner based in Sydney, said flooding has become very frequent in the last 30 years, including on Borneo island, due to land and forest being converted into mines or palm oil plantations.

"One of the reasons for our high emissions that we are suffering right now is deforestation," said Ms Greenbury, who is originally from Indonesia.

Aida Greenbury says the recent disasters should serve as a wake-up call for Indonesia. (Source: ABC)

According to Global Forest Watch, Indonesia lost 324,000 hectares of primary forest, equivalent to 187 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in emissions, in 2019.

The data also said Indonesia had lost 9.4 million hectares of primary forest between 2001 to 2019.

Ms Greenbury said another cause of flooding was the conversion of peatlands to mining and palm oil fields.

"[Peatland] has a very important hydrology function in terms of draining [and] absorbing moisture and rain," she said.

"If peatland is drained and losing its ability, it becomes a permanent inundation."

"Landslides are basically caused by erosion, fragile soil, [it's] definitely also because the land cover has been changed."

In 2014, Mr Widodo's administration pledged to hand over 11.7 million hectares of state forest to rural communities within five years, with one of the aims to cut carbon emissions by slowing deforestation.

But that project is falling behind schedule — last year's target of transferring 500,000 hectares was cut by half, with officials citing the pandemic.

Environmental campaigners are calling for mining areas to be restored to forest in Indonesia. (Source: Greenpeace)

'A vicious cycle'

Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) has warned of an increase in "multiple disaster risks" up until March 2021.

That's because of increased rainfall intensity and hydrometeorology hazards, which relates to the amount of water in the atmosphere, according to BMKG head Dwikorta Karnawti.

"Until March, there is still potential for multiple disaster risks, but the peak of hydrometeorology will be reached in January–February," she said in a press conference last week.

"The potential for seismicity will increase, people need to be alerted."

Dwikorta Karnawati has warned of an increase in "multiple disaster risks" in coming months.
(Source: Tempo / Pius Erlangga)

While Ms Greenbury acknowledged that weather and climate caused disasters, she said floods and landslides were also "caused by our own doing".

"If we do not stop deforestation, of course, climate change will become worse ... the weather will become unpredictable. And then of course, flooding appears more frequently," she said.

"It's really a vicious cycle."

Ms Greenbury said the series of disasters, particularly floods and landslides, should be "a wake-up call" for the Indonesian Government.

"I think they should treat this year as a wake up call to review their policy, stop issuing [logging and conversion] licenses [and] allowing people to continue deforestation," she said.

"All disused mining areas need to be restored back to forest."

Many of the fires are deliberately lit to clear land for agriculture, including palm oil plantations.
(Source: Reuters / Willy Kurniawan)

Ms Greenbury said forests in riparian areas — the land alongside rivers — had been lost and also needed to be reforested.

Mr Rompas from Greenpeace Indonesia said the Indonesian Government's approach to handling disasters was still "a reactive response" and not "a prevention approach".

"Although we all know that Indonesia is an archipelago where disasters happen frequently, with climate change, the intensity will keep increasing," he said.