Fifty-nine seconds in a 5.9 Richter scale earthquake

Down to Earth No. 70, August 2006

The following report from Yogyakarta, by Ima Susilowati, starts with a personal account of the events early on May 27th 2006, then moves on to a critique of the government's emergency response from an NGO worker's perspective.

The thundering filling my ears early on May 27th is still fresh in my memory. The noise made me think of the dustbin lorry which regularly collects the rubbish. Why is it so early (it was around 5 to six in the morning) and why is it making such a thundering noise, I asked myself. The next moment, before there was time to answer, a terrifying jolting made me stagger. At that moment I knew it wasn't the dustbin lorry. EARTHQUAKE! I got out of the house as fast as I could after picking up my child, who was still asleep.

I had never felt such an extreme shaking before. The house felt like it was being rocked violently from side to side. And if anyone asks me what is the most memorable experience of my life, I'll say: fifty-nine seconds in a 5.9 Richter scale earthquake.

I only found out the scale of damage later when the electricity came back on and we could watch the news on TV. I hadn't imagined that the earthquake I'd experienced could kill thousands of people and destroy hundreds of thousands of homes. The official World Health Organisation report stated that 6,487 people died, 96,000 were injured, and between 200,000 and 650,000 people were made homeless.

Since then the earthquake has filled our conversations and discussions.



It appears that the Yogyakarta earthquake was fairly 'eyecatching'. People - from local communities living nearby, to the international community - responded immediately by sending donations and offering solidarity. The government instated an emergency response period of three months.

Two days after the disaster, I got involved in emergency response work as a volunteer in an NGO in Yogyakarta. I helped package the aid (food and nutrition, sanitary goods, tents, etc.) and helped distribute it to people in the Yogyakarta area.

One month after the earthquake, Forum Suara - a forum to coordinate 26 civil society organisations set up two days after the quake - issued the following press release on the government's handling of the emergency so far.

Non-existent management: the government must explain its rehabilitation and reconstruction plans
Thirty days have passed since the earthquake that devastated Yogya and parts of Central Java, but life for the survivors is still uncertain. In many places food supplies are running low and many people's right to temporary shelter is not being fulfilled. They are being forced to sleep in the open air or crowded altogether in the emergency centre tents. SUARA has observed that many damaged areas have still only received minimal amounts of assistance...

...There has been a huge mobilisation of solidarity and assistance from people inside and outside Indonesia and it's fair to say that the rescue efforts in Yogya and Klaten have stemmed from public solidarity thus far. However, because of the lack of coordination and clear control from the government, this assistance has been distributed without any guarantee of fairness. Government aid, which survivors were counting on, still hasn't materialised today. The local government and central governments appear to be waiting for each other and are giving the impression that they are trying to avoid responsibility for meeting survivors' need for basic supplies and for dignity.

People have not been given information about the aftershocks or other natural post-quake events, but are left to find out for themselves. The areas of Imogiri and Pundong, for example, are hearing booming sounds and feeling tremors coming from underground. In Gedangsari, there is a crack in Bukit Linduk, hundreds of metres long, as far as the hills near from Patuk subdistrict. Local people have fled their homes.

These realities clearly conflict with the basic principles and minimum standards for disaster management as set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, the Covenant on the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1966, which underline the responsibility of states to guarantee the basic needs and the human dignity needs of disaster victims.

The same goes for planning. One month after the disaster, local and international NGOs and aid agencies are still waiting for the government to give them a clear picture of its rehabilitation and reconstruction plans. There are no ground rules on which organisations can base their work. If things go on like this, learning from the disaster management experience in Aceh and Nias, the same negative social, economic and cultural impacts could well happen in Yogya and Central Java. Therefore, Forum SUARA is urging the government to:

  1. Draft a master plan as soon as possible for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Yogya and Central Java, which accommodates local people's participation and knowledge;
  2. Give accurate and responsible information and carry out disaster mitigation education in areas that are still experiencing aftershocks and in areas where environmental conditions have changed or other natural events have happened which are causing local people concern;
  3. Guarantee that people's basic needs are fulfilled, including in remote areas or where there are food shortages;
  4. Guarantee that the various rights of vulnerable groups are fulfilled: babies and children; the elderly, women, sick and disabled people.

Since this press release was published, it is still hard to say that the government has started being more efficient. But government and non government organisations (local, national and international) are at least meeting each other to identify and fill the gaps in their work.


Disaster funds transparency

National Coordinating Agency for Natural Disaster and Refugees Relief (Bakornas PBP) has published a summary of central funds in local and national newspapers. This is a positive move - and unprecedented. At least we can see how much money is being handled by the central government for the Yogya and Central Java disaster.

Generally, there are two sources of funds for disaster management: state budget funds (APBN) and non-budget funds. The state budget funds can be used as and when required, needing only a phone call from the vice-president ('on call budget'). These state budget funds have been disbursed in two tranches of Rp 50 billion each.

Non-budget funds have come in from the Chinese embassy, UNESCAP in Bangkok, Thailand and the Indonesian embassy in Phnom Penh, Korea International Cooperation, Hongkong Care and the Indonesian embassy in Turkey. The total amount of non-budget funds stood at over Rp 23.5 billion by June 22 (Kompas 24/Jun/06).

These cash funds are being used to cover living costs for people whose homes have been damaged, and operational costs. Living costs are Rp 90,000 per person per month. According to official figures, this assistance has been distributed to 810,225 people in Yogya (5 districts), and 441,631 people in Central Java. Operational costs are 4% of the total, according to the summary of funding published.

At provincial level, around Rp33 billion is being handled by the Yogyakarta provincial government in the form of food and other goods to be distributed. Unfortunately, no provincial summary has been made available, so it is harder to track how the aid money is being spent here.

Other questions remain unanswered too. According to Bakornas on June 30th, the government decided to spend 75% of the total funds allocated for covering living costs for Yogyakarta and Central Java survivors. There has been no information on the deadline for disbursing the rest of the funds.


Data collection and damage verification

Distributing aid does help people who really need it. But, according to Findings, one month after the quake, by the Institute for Development and Economic Analysis (Idea Yogya), there have been a range of problems in the process of distributing this living cost assistance. The problems stem from a lack of accuracy in the basic data which determine how aid is targeted. Data collection has been very limited and confusing, resulting in many people not receiving living cost assistance because they have not been counted.

The data collection has not been carried out by the officials who were supposed to do it. Instead there has been a tendency to pass this matter to the people themselves, with no guidance, and call it 'self-assessment'. As a result, the distribution of aid to cover living costs is different from one area to another. According to the mechanism used, living cost assistance is allocated on a house by house basis, at the same time as damage verification. If the damage is less than 25%, or the house is still fit to live in, no living cost assistance is payable. In practice, data collection is being left to the people themselves, who do this by filling in a form, which they find confusing and leads to inaccuracies. Damage verification is being done by village heads and community leaders, meaning that houses are being categorised differently from one area to the next. Many people feel that this is unfair and there are many who believe they deserve the living cost assistance, but aren’t receiving any.


Reconstruction plans

By early July, reconstruction plans finally started to take shape. The emergency response period officially ended on July 3rd - earlier than planned because the government considered that people affected by the disaster had reached a minimal survival level.

A 'Post Yogyakarta and Central Java Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Team' was established under a Presidential decree signed on July 3rd to coordinate planning, implementation and evaluation of the rehabilitation and reconstruction work. District-level planning has started. In Bantul district, for example, a 12 month rehabilitation plan will focus on restoring minimum public services, basic and economic infrastructure, reconstructing homes and psychological rehabilitation. A 24-month reconstruction strategy aims to restore all economic, transportation, telecommunications, social and cultural services and institutions.

The most urgent thing for people in the region is to move out of their tents by October when the rainy seasons starts. Bantul is planning to build 300,000 houses costing Rp1.2 trillion (around US$120 million), although the local authorities only have about 20-25% of the money needed.

The government is trying to promote earthquake resistant housing. Sleman district, for example, has built 100 model earthquake-resistant houses in Prambanan subdistrict. Woven bamboo is the first choice for semi-permanent housing, because it's comparatively cheap and more quake-proof than other building materials.

Nevertheless, the cost of bamboo panels, as well as other building materials like sand and bricks, is rocketing due to the post-quake demand, mostly from aid agencies. There is also concern about the sustainability of supplies: will bamboo stands in the region be exploited out of existence if bamboo becomes the construction material of choice?

Now, almost two months have passed. One thing that has united people during this time is the feeling of shared suffering. For example, when there is a problem with living cost assistance, they agree to share the money received with people who haven't received any due to inaccurate data collection. They do whatever needs to be done, like clearing away the debris of their homes, and try to rebuild them according to their capabilities, with everyone helping out. The work of NGOs and the government has been rather ineffective, so people would rather be self-reliant than depend on outside help.

SUARA's website is at: