INDONESIA: Why local wisdom failed to save lives during the last tsunami?

By: Irina Rafliana, Executive Secretary, International Center for Interdisciplinary and Advanced Research, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Member of Global Science and Technology Advisory Group — UNISDR

Bali students taking part in a drill to learn to act when tsunamis strike. Photo: UNDP Indonesia

Indonesia, the ocean has always been huge part of our lives, bringing both pleasure and fear, opportunities and lessons.

In the past, communities along the coast have saved their knowledge about the sea into the stories and songs, including tales about the destructive waves that were triggered by earthquakes.

Children of Simeulue Island. Photo:

A fishermen community of Simeulue Island in Aceh, for example, has their own concept for ‘tsunami’ — ‘smong’.

Passed down through songs and poems, the indigenous culture gives clear directions — run up to the mountain when there’s a strong earthquake followed by a low tide. This local knowledge saved the community from the worst in the 2004 tsunami.

Mentawai people in the West Sumatra have rich folk tales about hazards. Songs about earthquakes are usually sung in a merry tone because people there see earthquakes, surprisingly, as a blessing not a threat.

Kaili tribe in Palu has their own folklore about tsunamis, ‘bombatalu’, and earthquakes, but the wisdom embedded into these indigenous knowledge was not heeded during the last tsunami.

Due to people moving from place to place, the local stories are not passed down to the next generation anymore.

Combining ancient believes and modern tsunami preparedness in Bali. Photo: UNDP Indonesia

ocal knowledge is important in shaping risk perceptions. A catastrophic tsunami wave in Aceh in 2004 and in Sendai Japan in 2011 already showed the consequences of losing local insight to disaster preparedness, unfortunately with human lives at its cost.

On the other hand, it is too much to ask from the folklore to give actionable instructions on what to do or where to go if one sees or feels the symptoms that can potentially generate a tsunami. Traditional knowledge was to tell about the phenomena, rather than what actions to take if it happens again in the future.

Tsunami drill in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo: UNDP Indonesia

A tsunami as a scientific discourse is contemporary, a new concept for most of the communities in Indonesia.

Driven from Japanese language, the word ‘tsunami’ means harbor waves: ‘tsu’ means harbor and ‘nami’ means harbor.

Tsunami awareness. Photo: UNDP

Scientific narratives expanded the meaning of waves merely hitting coastlines and harbors, to a more complex definition: “A series of traveling waves of extremely long length and period, usually generated by disturbances associated with earthquakes occurring below or near the ocean floor, and that volcanic eruptions, submarine landslides and coastal rock fall including meteorite can also generate tsunamis” (UNESCO, 2016).

After the tsunami mega-disaster in 2004, this natural phenomenon was swiftly adopted as a threat to coastal areas and utilized as a risk.

Yet, whether or not communities adopt tsunamis as a newly perceived risk, would differ from region to region.

This is where the science has an important role to play.

Clear instructions on what to do during a tsunami warning.

Scientific concepts of risks, vulnerability and capacities are not indigenous.

Local knowledge is highly important, but it needs some complementary explanations from the science — clear guidance in a simple language that communities can follow.

Scientists’ perception of danger and how to manifest those perceptions into action are different from those of school children, elders, local authorities or policy makers. Knowledge and experiences strongly shape these perceptions.

If communities and authorities haven’t experienced a tsunami, they tend to think it is not a threat

School drills are forms of blending scientific knowledge (knowing what your risks are, where the tsunami can inundate your area, and where would the safe place would be) and experience.

Participatory school drills, indeed, are among the most powerful tools to shape the perceptions of risk for better preparedness.

Author Irina Rafliana facilitating a participatory school tsunami drill in Indonesia. Photo: Sarah Hall, Brigham Young University, 2017

Copyright: UNDP Bangkok Regional Office

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