Ausgabe 41/2006

Java's Mud Volcano Eruptions Displace Thousands in Indonesia

By Marco Evers

Part 2

But despite their efforts, the problems become more serious by the hour. At one site, a gray-haired construction engineer directs a small convoy of dump trucks as they bring in earth to construct yet another dike. "What we are doing here," says the engineer, "has never been attempted anywhere else in the world. There are no precedents."

The crisis managers are slowly running out of options. At first, they tried to simply plug the hole in the ground with concrete, but that effort quickly proved to be useless. Then they tried to cart away the mud on trucks, but abandoned the idea when the discharge volume increased. Their next plan was to construct huge catchment basins. However, the basins, covering an area of about 500 hectares (1,234 acres), were soon full. Now they are hurriedly building an extremely strong dike, which the experienced construction engineer describes as the "last line of defense." But it would take a great deal of optimism to believe that this final bulwark won't soon be flooded as well.

To make matters worse, when the rainy season starts in late October the mud from the underworld will be joined by torrents of rain from the skies. The hastily built earthen dikes will soften and the reservoirs will overflow. "I'm worried," says the engineer, "extremely worried." There will be casualties if the dikes break, because tens of thousands of people still live in the area.

When one of the dikes collapsed on Aug. 16, hot, viscous mud oozed onto a rice field. Together with her husband, Mutiin -- a 40-year-old woman who, like many Javanese, doesn't use a last name -- quickly attempted to harvest the rice from her field, even though it wasn't quite ripe yet. "But we had to give up; the mud was too hot," she says. She suffered minor burns on her lower legs.

Despite the danger, Mutiin refuses to abandon her house. Like most of her neighbors, she says she plans to stay put, even though the water from the well now has what she calls a "bitter taste" and irritates the skin when residents shower. Their children are having trouble breathing and the air is constantly filled with the mud's stench. But at least the residents who have elected to stay behind are being supplied with fresh water.

Graphic: Sidoarjo before and after the mud volcano in May 2006 and September 2006

Graphic: Sidoarjo before and after the mud volcano in May 2006 and September 2006

Because his house is dangerously close to the dike, bird merchant Rahmat Vejaya, 29, fled to an emergency shelter weeks ago, taking his wife, two-year-old daughter and mother with him. "I am very upset," he says. "I lost my work, my home and my peace." Local residents have already vented their fury against the government and against the Lapindo natural gas drilling company in a series of angry demonstrations. To make matters worse, the police have declared that they will shoot at demonstrators who turn to violence.

Meanwhile, workers have begun installing steel pipes to pump water and mud from the many catchment basins. Using excavating equipment, workers are dredging a canal between one of the largest basins and the nearby Porong River, as part of a plan to divert new mud into the river and into the ocean 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. But because the river has very little slope, experts fear that it could quickly silt up and flood its banks. Environmentalists are opposed to the plan because the flood of sediment could endanger mangroves, fish and fishermen.

Drilling engineers from the United States are now undertaking one last, desperate effort to solve the problem. They intend to drill three additional holes in hopes of finding the channel that is allowing the hot mud to escape to the surface. If the plan works, the engineers will pour special concrete into the channel by December in an effort to choke off the volcano. But even Rudi Novrianto, the spokesman of the national team handling the crisis, estimates the project's chances of succeeding at "15 percent or less."

"What they are attempting to do is like stopping the Nile from running towards the ocean," says Norwegian scientist Martin Hovland derisively. "It is completely impossible."

The most likely scenario for the future is that large swathes of Sidoarjo will have to be evacuated and abandoned to the mud. The refugees whose houses have already been destroyed will never return.

Officials are mulling over how to make use of the mud, at least in the medium term. One option is to build factories near the disaster zone that would turn the mud into bricks, roof shingles and ceramics, uses for which the sandy, claylike material seems ideally suited. Indeed, if the mud volcano continues to eject its hot material at the current rate, these businesses could very well have a guaranteed source of their principal raw material for decades to come.

Georg Delisle, a geologist with Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) in Hanover, has spent the last few weeks on board a German research ship off the coast of Sumatra. Based on his exchanges with Indonesian scientists, Delisle is pessimistic when it comes to the disaster-stricken region's future. He is troubled by the mud's water content, which, at 30 percent, is still very high.

If it were drier, the mud could eventually plug up the fissure. But that, says Delisle, is unlikely to happen. Instead, he is convinced that the eruption will last for months and the volcano will continue to grow. A mud volcano Delisle studied in Azerbaijan ultimately grew to a towering 230 meters (754 feet).

Who is to blame for the eruption? Are Lapindo's drilling engineers behind the mess? For weeks, the company denied all responsibility, pointing to the fact that, after all, the mud wasn't flowing directly from their drilling hole but from a new fissure 180 meters (590 feet) to the southeast.

Adriano Mazzini of the University of Oslo, having just returned from a trip to Sidoarjo, believes the monster is the result of natural geological processes that have been going on for thousands of years. Lapindo's drilling activities, says Mazzini, may have accelerated the event, but he believes that the eruption was bound to occur one way or another. Another possible trigger, he says, could have been the May 27 earthquake in Yogyakarta, 300 kilometers (186 miles) away, which claimed 6,000 lives. According to Mazzini, no one will ever really know what caused the eruption, something not even courts of law can change.

But Delisle believes that a drilling accident is the most likely culprit. For one thing, he questions whether the Lapindo engineers made sure that the drilling hole was adequately lined with "casing," according to industry parlance, as was required and is standard practice worldwide -- to prevent fluids from seeping in from the sides. "Something went fundamentally wrong here," he says. Geological engineer Achim Kopf of the University of Bremen agrees, saying that everything about the case points to a "classic drilling accident." He doubts whether Lapindo used standard safety equipment, such as a device known in the oil and gas industry as a "blowout preventer."

Whatever the causes, what happened in Sidoarjo is a singular event. Hardly anyone in the drilling industry would have considered such a disaster even remotely possible.

Lapindo only assumed responsibility when the Indonesian police confiscated the company's equipment and launched criminal investigations into nine senior executives. President Yudhoyono has signed a decree declaring the company liable and ordering it to foot the bill for all consequences of the mud volcano's eruption, as well as to pay damages to and resettle the affected businesses and residents. The damage is estimated at upwards of $250 million.

The controversy over compensation is politically explosive. The company blamed for the accident, Lapindo, is part of a conglomerate owned by the wealthy Bakrie family. One of its members, Aburizal Bakrie, is the "People's Welfare Coordinating Minister" in Yudhoyono's cabinet. Bakrie used his family fortune to foot much of the bill for the president's election campaign. Now Indonesians are eager to see whether Yudhoyono will in fact order his benefactor to help pay for the disaster.

In addition to subsidies for food and tuition, the refugees displaced by the mud have received the equivalent of about €450 in compensation for each household. At first, they were even required to sign a statement relinquishing their right to sue the company. The money is intended to cover their housing costs for two years, at which point the government will have to find a more permanent solution. There is talk that Lapindo is buying the residents' former houses or offering them the use of new ones. The drilling company also plans to find new jobs for anyone who became unemployed as a result of the disaster.

Haji Hasan, the chairman of one of the lost villages, has turned to a thoroughly unscientific approach to saving the region. He has offered a reward of 100 million rupiahs, or about €8,400 ($10,840), for anyone who can convince the spirits to make the mud stop flowing.

More than 100 magicians, shamans and witches have responded to his appeal, much to the chagrin of local imams. For weeks the collection of sorcerers cast their spells on the volcano. One was an elderly woman who presented herself to the mud as the "Queen of Bali" and ordered it to stop flowing immediately.

Haji Hasan's experts, as it turned out, were just as successful as the hordes of engineers and scientists who had traveled to the region -- in other words, not at all.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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