Ausgabe 41/2006

Java's Mud Volcano Eruptions Displace Thousands in Indonesia

First came the 2004 tsunami. Then Indonesia was afflicted by the Merapi volcano and a major earthquake in Yogyakarta. Now, a heavily populated region of East Java has been consumed by an unstoppable "mud volcano" that may have been caused by a gas- and oil-drilling project.

By Marco Evers

It is difficult to imagine that farmers in this part of the Sidoarjo district of East Java were planting rice and sugar cane until just a short time ago. Workers in small factories were producing watches, liquor, furniture and shoes, and the area's villages consisted of narrow lanes and small houses made of stone, concrete and wood. Residents grew bananas in their backyards and carefully tended small but lush gardens.

Those residents would still want to be living here if it weren't for the fact that their villages have now acquired the disastrous nickname "Pompeii." Some even call them "Ground Zero."

The oil and gas exploration company Lapindo Brantas also had an operation in the region. It had constructed a drilling rig only 500 meters (1,640 feet) from nearby houses, an arrangement that was completely legal under Indonesian law. Five months ago, Lapindo engineers drove their drills to a depth of almost 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), into what is known as the "Kunjung formation," where they hoped to encounter oil and, more importantly, natural gas. Indeed, oil and gas were exactly what they had already found at 15 other drilling locations in the wider surrounding area.

What happened then may have been a natural phenomenon. Perhaps it was simply the primeval force of nature, against which human beings are powerless, that unfolded in Sidoarjo.

But many say otherwise, speculating that Lapindo's drilling activities were responsible for the ensuing disaster. They claim that it was irresponsible of the company to tear a wound into the geological bowels of the earth at such great depths. As a result, the earth has been incontinent since May 29.

That was the day the first residents began complaining about Lapindo, the day they first witnessed stinking, hot mud shooting from the earth 180 meters (590 feet) from the drilling rig. Lapindo personnel calmly informed the concerned residents that these kinds of events are not unusual in the oil and gas exploration business, and that the geysers would soon subside of their own accord.

But nothing stopped of its own accord. What began as a stinking puddle of mud soon turned into a pond, the pond turned into a lake and the lake turned into a small inland sea. Despite the local residents' efforts to protect themselves and their homes with sandbags, sludge levels continued to rise.

One night the hot mud crept into nearby houses for the first time. Since then, an unparalleled drama has unfolded in East Java, only 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Indonesia's second-largest city Surabaya, and no one has a clue as to how and, more to the point, when the whole thing will end.

Graphic: Bursted bubble

Graphic: Bursted bubble

Pressure from massive layers of rock is draining a huge, subterranean reservoir of mud, forcing the steaming material to the surface, where it has slowly inundated the surrounding flat countryside. The so-called mud volcano that has formed in the middle of this densely populated area is apparently the world's largest, as well as the first that may have been triggered by human activity.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has declared Sidoarjo a disaster zone. Cabinet ministers are flying in from the Indonesian capital Jakarta, officials are holding crisis meetings and the United Nations has sent in experts. The Indonesian army has dispatched 1,400 troops and heavy equipment to the region.

So far the mud has claimed 20 factories, 15 mosques, a cemetery and 18 schools. It has closed a section of the main road to Bali and is only a few meters away from flooding an important rail line. Authorities have already declared eight villages partly or completely uninhabitable. More than 12,000 people have been evacuated. But this is only the beginning.

So far, refugees have had enough time to take along their most valuable possessions, from television sets and stereos to furniture and important documents. But what they were forced to leave behind is even more telling, as toys, shoes, mattresses and canned goods float on the surface of the dense liquid. The list of victims has not included any human lives, only 1,605 chickens, 30 goats and 2 dairy cows.

Every day, residents and refugees climb one of the hastily erected dikes to survey the damage -- and curse Lapindo. A 50-meter (164-foot) plume of raging water vapor shoots eerily from a spot that until recently was an ordinary rice field. Instead of rice, the field now contains a large crater at least 20 meters (65 feet) in diameter. The geyser bubbles, gurgles and occasionally emits loud bursts, constantly spurting steaming, inky dark mud from the bowels of the earth. The putrid stench is sometimes interspersed with the odor of petroleum. The plume occasionally contains larger amounts of hydrogen sulfide, producing sulfur's telltale odor of rotten eggs.

Classic volcanism is not the cause of this spectacle. There is no molten magma, and no one expects the kind of deadly eruption that transpired when Krakatoa, a volcano off the Javan coast, famously exploded in 1883. Instead of lava and ash, mud volcanoes spew a mixture of gases and mud from high-pressure zones deep beneath the surface.

Geologists know of more than 1,100 mud volcanoes worldwide. Each has its own peculiarities. Some stand only a foot or so tall and are harmless, like the bubbling molehill-sized mud volcanoes on Trinidad. Others are dangerous. Powerful mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan are emitting large amounts of methane gas. Some are on fire and, in some cases, have been burning uninterrupted for centuries. During periods of high activity, a large mud volcano off the coast of Trinidad spits out entire islands. In 1911, 1928, 1964 and 2001, it deposited recognizable landmasses into the ocean, although they eventually became submerged again.

The Sidoarjo event offers researchers a rare opportunity to observe the birth of one of these puzzling formations and to take its pulse with all manner of measuring devices. Bit by bit, the formation is assuming the characteristic shape of a volcano. It has already grown to a height of 14 meters (46 feet), making it taller than any of the surrounding and now submerged trees and buildings. Meanwhile, the land has been sinking at a rate of three centimeters a month since the catastrophe began.

No one knows how large the reservoir is that is feeding the volcano, nor is there any way of finding out. However, the sheer volume of material being ejected each day provides some indication of its potency. Using GPS equipment, experts with gas company Lapindo have been measuring the volcano's flow rate for months, producing data that has researchers the world over in awe and residents and local authorities in a state of shock:

  • In June, the volcano spit out an average of 5,000 cubic meters (178,571 cubic feet) of mud a day -- enough to fill 150 garbage trucks.

  • In July, that amount increased five-fold, to a daily discharge volume of about 25,000 cubic meters (892,855 cubic feet).

  • In August, daily production jumped to 50,000 cubic meters (about 1.8 million cubic feet).

  • By September, the mud hole's average daily output amounted to 125,000 cubic meters (4.5 million cubic feet), enough to transform a soccer field into a pool of mud 17 meters (56 feet) deep.

And there is still no indication that the mud volcano has reached its maximum output, nor has it shown any sign of subsiding.

Officials now face the question of what to do with the hot sludge. The furiously spitting hole in the ground has already covered an area almost the size of Bavaria's Königssee Lake, or about two square miles, with a slippery sludge up to 12 meters (39 feet) deep in places. If the Indonesians hadn't dispatched a small army of more than 1,000 men, equipped with bulldozers, graders and trucks, to build new dikes around the clock, many more villages would already have disappeared.

  • Part 1: Eruptions Displace Thousands in Indonesia
  • Part 2
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