Was Palu prepared?

If you have read my previous posts, you will have noticed that my focus was on the small island countries located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which are affected by natural hazards on a regular basis. My posts so far has described the different innovative ways these countries have used information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the preparation and response to such events. With my final post for this blog, I will use the latest earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia as a case study show how ICTs are not an instant solution in every circumstance. To be most effective, they must be used holistically and in conjunction with a variety of approaches.

What went wrong on 28 September

On Friday, 28 September 2018, right after 6:00 PM local time, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake was recorded just off the coast from the island of Sulawesi, followed by numerous aftershocks. The Indonesian Agency of Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) issued a tsunami warning immediately after the initial quake, but withdraw the warning 30 minutes later. At the same time, – a city located in a narrow bay in Sulawesi was hit by tsunami waves as high as 6 meters. The unexpected tsunami resulted in the loss of over 2,000 lives and major infrastructure damage. The BMKG reported that it had sent out text messages with a warning to the affected populations, yet due to the damage to the communications infrastructure, the messages were never received. Furthermore, none of the sirens on the shoreline were functional.

As Indonesia is frequently affected by earthquakes and occasional destructive tsunamis (e.g. the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami), the international community has assisted the country’s government to establish an early detection warning system (seismographic sensors, buoys, tidal gauges and GPS) for such events. However, it has become clear after the latest destructive event, the early warning system has not been effective since 2012;  there has been a lack of funding as well as the destruction and theft of buoys by locals.

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, there has been significant blame on multiple fronts: the BMKG has pointed the finger at the Indonesian Government and international community for a lack of funding to keep the system functioning. At the same time, the international community has highlighted corruption and limited budget appropriation for disaster preparedness by the Indonesian Government.

Limited preparation

As discussed by Heeks (2017), the typical understanding of disaster management sees it as a cycle:

Disaster management cycle

All parts of the cycle are important. However, due to the limits of this post, I will focus on “preparation” – i.e. evacuation plans, training of front-line responders and early warning systems – a critical aspect, taking actions beforehand, to ensure that everyone and everything is prepared.

As the above chart and previous discussion presents, Indonesia was far from ready for the disaster that struck. While it is clear that the early warning system was not functioning, there has been less focus on the limited community awareness on how to react and what to do, once the alert is received from the emergency system – assuming it was operational. Possessing a highly sophisticated early warning system, or even the most innovative technology, is not in itself a comprehensive solution; it is just one a part of effective preparedness and response.


“A lot of people tend to think that having technology will solve all the problems, but there’s a lot of cases where you have advanced  technology, but people couldn’t understand, couldn’t use the technology, then it is useless.”

Peerenan Towashiraporn, Asian Disaster Preparedness Center


People located in hazard-prone areas must be aware of the need to evacuate without waiting for official warnings, they should rely on the earthquake itself as a natural warning for any potential tsunami. However, such awareness is only achieved through regular awareness and education programmes in coastal areas at risk of natural hazards, such as tsunamis (even if these happen less frequently like in Palu, where the last tsunami was in 1968).

Similarly to Fiji (discussed in my post), tsunami and earthquake preparation drills (United Nations Development Program with its partners) were organised in Palu in cooperation with a local partner from 2009-2011. However, once the program left Palu, the local government and communities had sole ownership and responsibility to sustain the practices and knowledge and to share these with the rest of the population. This however, had not been completed for many years. This resulted in the majority of the local population not knowing where to go or how to react once the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami hit.  Furthermore, there was minimal information available for the affected communities in regard to safe evacuation routes or sites.

Interestingly, to keep up with the innovative developments in the ICT-field, BMKG released a mobile application for weather conditions in 2016, with approximately 900,000 users. In theory, this made it easier for the public to access to crucial information, such as seismic activity and potential tsunamis. Nevertheless, in practice, such technological developments are useless, unless people are aware of them, and are knowledgeable enough to act upon the information provided. It is effortless for the government to accuse people of theft and damaging the buoys, without educating them about the actual, highly important, role that they play in community safety.

 How to progress from here?

It is crucial that there is a strong ongoing awareness and preparedness training available in communities that are affected by natural hazards, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. In addition to upgrading early emergency detection systems infrastructure, such as communications, it is necessary to undertake regular training and drills for disaster scenarios. A good suggestion is also to have training as part of regular classroom education so children can learn from a very young age. Also, it is the responsibility of the local government to educate populations about the possible evacuation routes and make sure that these are visibly marked.

Beyond raising public awareness, it is important that there are multiple systems in place to issue warnings. If one or two systems fail (as it happened in Palu), there are other systems are able to send warning messages. For example, a rapid-alert notification system is currently in the design-phase for Pacific countries that would enable broadcast to all media (i.e. social media sites, siren systems, both high and low frequency radio, community radio broadcasts, low frequency alert systems) to send out a simultaneous broadcast within a few seconds. But once again, this only works in a situation where a country has effective disaster management system, including widespread public awareness and high level early warning systems.