The power of Alam

Volcanic ash covers buildings and the surrounding area, following the eruption of Mount Kelud in East Java on February 13, in Kediri on February 16, 2014. Three Indonesian airports reopened February 15 while four others remained closed, officials said, after the eruption killed four people and forced mass evacuations. AFP PHOTO/JUNI KRISWANTO

The force of Nature has been both a boon and a bane for the Indonesian archipelago.

LAST week Indonesia (and especially Jakarta) was overwhelmed by torrential rains and flooding.

Whilst much of the attention was focused on the capital, the impact of the rains was nationwide with the city of Manado in North Sulawesi badly affected by the flooding.

Indeed, all along the northern coast of Java roads and bridges were swept away by the floodwaters, testament to the importance of preserving our fast-diminishing mountain forests.

This week, the eruption of Gunung Kelud just 137km south of the city of Surabaya in East Java has similarly hogged the headlines – eclipsing the coverage of Gunung Sinabung’s activity in North Sumatra.

Gunung Kelud has a tempestuous personality.

Unlike Gunung Merapi, just to the north of Yogyakarta, which continues to emit puffs of steamy hot air, this far less distinguished-looking volcano made just one sudden and dramatic explosion: spewing well over 200 million cubic metres of ash into the skies above Java.

Because of the prevailing westerly winds, much of the island’s south was blanketed in a fine coat of grey ash, transforming rural Java into a Central European winter scene.

Thankfully Gunung Kelud (unlike Sinabung which hadn’t shown signs of activity in over 400 years) was known to have been an active volcano.

Local residents were ready to relocate and quickly.

Still, images of airports shuttered because of volcanic ash – in some cases five centimetres deep – have surprised many.

Whatever the case, the two events have reminded Indonesians of the extraordinary power of Alam (or Nature) in their lives.

Given Alam’s terrible unpredictability as well as its verdant wealth (the island is also incredibly fertile) is it any wonder that the Javanese in particular are so fastidious in their religious practices and respectful of others?

Faced by such unexpected natural disasters, could it be that protection from “above” is just about the only source of hope?

Whenever I visit the graves of the Wali Songo – the nine Muslim “Saints” who first brought Islam to Java – and observe the quiet but fervent devotion of the thousands waiting to offer their prayers alongside the tombs, I’m always struck by sight of the volcanoes hovering in the distance.

They stand like silent sentinels: destructive force mixed with abundant fertility.

They seem to say: pray all you want but there are some things in life – like us – that answer to a higher power than you.

Because make no mistake, Alam exerts itself as it pleases in Indonesia.

As I said, Alam has blessed Indonesia with incredible richness.

The World Bank in 2011 estimated that there was some 510,000 sq km of agricultural land in Indonesia, or 28.2% of its entire land area.

This same land produced some 40 million tonnes of rice in 2013. And there was still a 5.4 million tonnes surplus.

Much of this was due to the volcanic ash which has fallen on its soil for centuries – especially in Java.

But as Alam gives, so too does it take away.

As much as we would like to believe that our cities, roads and bridges are a sign that man has tamed the land, we’re still very much at its mercy.

I’ve experienced so many minor tremors in both Jakarta and Bali that I’m quite blasé when I feel the earth shaking.

However, when the full force of Alam is unleashed, such as the earthquake that slashed its way across Southern Yogyakarta in 2006 or in Padang in 2009, the destruction can be unimaginable; leaving entire communities flattened.

Late last year, I visited Aceh to shoot my Ceritalah Indonesia documentary.

There, I visited the Tsunami Museum.

It’s a haunting, sombre memorial to the 160,000 people who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The waters on that fateful Boxing Day swept away men, women, children, animals and buildings.


So Alam’s blessings to Indonesia and indeed the whole world are mixed.

It has the power to renew, but also destroy.

We would be very foolish to think otherwise.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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Opinion , Karim Raslan


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