Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Indonesia: Mud volcano drives villagers away from their homes
“Hey, Mom, there’s our house, there’s the mango tree,” she said they shout. But there is nothing to see, only an ocean of mud that has buried this village and a dozen more over the past two-and-a-half years.
The mud erupted here during exploratory drilling for natural gas, and it has grown to be one of the largest mud volcanoes ever to have affected a populated area. Unlike other disasters that torment Indonesia — earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis — this one continues with no end in sight, and experts say the flow of mud could go on for many years or decades.
The steaming mud keeps bubbling up, spreading across the countryside, driving people from their homes, burying fields and factories. It has forced the relocation of roads, bridges, a railway line and a major gas pipeline.
As the earth disgorges the mud and the lake of mud grows, the land is sinking by as much as 40 feet a year and could subside to depths of more than 460 feet just one hour’s drive from Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya, according to Richard Davies, a geologist at Durham University in Britain who is an expert on mud volcanoes.
Siti Maimunah, an environmental advocate, said people who lived nearby had begun getting sick, with about 46,000 visiting clinics with respiratory problems since the mud eruption.
Ms. Siti, who is national coordinator for the Mining Advocacy Network of Indonesia, said the gas that emerged with the mud was toxic and possibly carcinogenic. “We worry that in the next 5 to 10 years people will face a second disaster with health problems,” she said.
Attempts to stem the flow have failed.
These have included a scheme to drop hundreds of giant concrete balls into the mouth of the eruption; the concrete balls simply disappeared without effect. A project to divert some of the mud into the nearby Porong River has raised fears that the buildup of silt on the riverbed could cause severe flooding, possibly in Surabaya itself.
The disaster has become an embarrassment to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who faces a new election next year, with groups of displaced people demonstrating in the distant capital, Jakarta.
The drilling company that critics say caused the disaster, Lapindo Brantas, is indirectly owned by the family of one of Indonesia’s richest and most influential men, Aburizal Bakrie, who is a major financial backer of President Yudhoyono and serves in his cabinet as coordinating minister for the people’s welfare.
The victims say compensation has been slow, with only a portion of promised funds delivered to them. Sixty-thousand people have fled their homes and many, like Ms. Lilik, now live in nearby shelters and in a marketplace.
This is a particularly forlorn class of displaced people who mostly fend for themselves because, as victims of what is being called a man-made disaster, they receive little assistance from the government or from international aid agencies.
“So we live without hope,” said Ali Mursjid, 25, who was in college studying to be a teacher before the mud volcano made him destitute. “Nobody is willing to help us.”
His village, Besuki, was only partly buried in mud, and it is now a ghost town of empty houses and hard, cracked mud where children fly kites and shout to hear their voices echo.
The steaming mud erupted from the ground on May 29, 2006, as Lapindo Brantas was drilling near the industrial district of Sidoarjo. Its tunnel pierced a pressurized aquifer 9,000 feet underground.
Experts on mud volcanoes say the drilling and inadequate safeguards in the borehole set off the eruption of water, gas and mud that continues to flow, at about 100,000 cubic meters a day.
Lapindo says that it was itself a victim, blaming vibrations from a major earthquake that struck two days earlier with an epicenter 186 miles away.
After listening to new evidence about the eruption, 74 petroleum geologists attending an October conference in Cape Town concluded that the drilling had been the cause.
“There is no question, the pressures in the well went way beyond what it could tolerate — and it triggered the mud volcano,” said Susila Lusiaga, a drilling engineer who was part of the Indonesian investigation team, according to a report on the conference by Durham University.
The debate over responsibility has severely limited the payments, said Elfian Effendi, executive director of Greenomics Indonesia, an environmental advocacy group.
After paying out 20 percent of a promised compensation package, Lapindo agreed this month to begin monthly payments equal to $2,500 to 8,000 families it said were eligible. But as part of the Bakrie family holdings, Lapindo has been severely affected by the current economic downturn and some experts question whether the full amount will ever be paid.
Since the first eruption in May 2006, there have been more than 90 others, most of them small but some explosive, said Jim Schiller, a political scientist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who has published a study of the disaster.
He described what he called the horror-movie progress of the mud, which continues to burst from the ground at unexpected times and places. “I’ve got pictures of them popping up in people’s living rooms,” he said.
The village of Renokenongo was buried during the biggest of these eruptions, in November 2007, when the weight of sinking earth burst a major natural-gas pipeline, killing 13 workers and sending a fireball into the sky.
Ms. Lilik, 30, who teaches kindergarten, said the visits to the levee by her former village calm her children, Icha Noviyanti, 11, and Fiqhi Izzudin, 5.
“People say it’s not a good idea to take the children there, but I think the opposite,” she said. “I think it’s very important for them to see their home and express their anger. They throw rocks at the mud and shout, ‘Lapindo!’ ”