Disaster tourism in Sidoardjo

Down to Earth No. 71, November 2006

The following account is by a member of DTE's staff who visited Sidoardjo in October.

Disasters can become tourist attractions and that's what has happened at the Sidoardjo mudflow in East Java.

The hot mud, which has now inundated the villages of Siring, Jatirejo, Renolenongo, Kedungbendo, Mindi, Kedungcangkring, Besuki and Pejarakan, has been turned into a new source of livelihood by some local people. As is proper at tourist attractions, there are plenty of hawkers stalls selling all kinds of food and cold drinks, set up beside the mud levee in Porong subdistrict. They are benefiting from the traffic jams and crowds of visitors coming from in and around the city of Sidoradjo to view the disaster scene.

When I visited Porong subdistrict at the end of October, from two kilometres outside Porong you could already see clearly the white vapour rising from the source of the mudflow. On the left-hand side of the road (going from Sidoardjo towards Malang) there were empty houses, dead trees and rice-fields engulfed by the mud.

Once in Porong subdistrict, the traffic jams got worse. You could see that the mud levees walls had reached about four metres high and were being built higher still.

The levees were in a dangerous position, less than five metres from the railway line and only around twenty metres from the main road through Porong, which links the cities of Surabaya and Gempol.

Efforts to secure the Surabaya - Malang railway line include elevating the rails and building a water pipeline less than a metre wide and 50cm under the level of the railway.

There was police tape around along the levee and several police officers were patrolling the site.

Visitors wanting to see the mud volcano close up, could take a motorbike taxi (ojek), a service provided by local villagers.

They came for different reasons: some to make studies, some to see the place they were born, or their family land, but most came because they just wanted to see the disaster for themselves.

The intensity of the sun and the heat of Sidoardjo was all the more severe at the mudflow site. The hot gases rising from the mud, combined with the foul smell and exhaust fumes from the traffic jams, were the distinctive features of this tourist attraction.


Rain: a blessing or a curse?

Although this was the rainy season, there had been no rain since May when I visited Sidoardjo. Rain poses a serious threat for local people, especially those living near the levees. But for farmers, rain is a blessing, meaning they can start planting their rice-fields.

Drought is starting to affect Sidoardjo city. In the Candi Gelam area (around 3 km from the Porong containment levee) the water has run out and people are forced to buy water for washing, laundry and cooking, spending at least Rp20,000 (just over US$2) per day. Although some wells are not completely dry, the water in them is thick and smelly and tastes salty.

According to one local man, there have been thick clouds bringing a few spots of rain, but only lasting a few minutes. A rumour is going around that Javanese magicians (pawang) have been brought in to keep rain away from Sidoardjo.

Despite the drought and water shortages, nobody in Sidoardjo wants the rains to come. They know that they will worsen the disaster, because it is very likely that the earth levees will no longer be able to contain the water and mud. Even without the rain they have not been able to cope, so there is little hope they can once the rains start.

Rain is a double-edged sword: it can end the drought, but it also threatens to destroy the levees and exacerbate the disaster. No rain means that the pace of the disaster can be checked, but it also means drought. Either way, the immediate future looks grim for the people of Sidoardjo.