Thursday, August 07, 2008
  Indonesia's Ground Zero Expanding

A giant stinking lake of volcanic mud has made 50,000 people homeless and swallowed up villages and factories, write David McNeill and Andre Vltchek

Indonesians call it Pompeii, or their own Ground Zero, a giant stinking lake of volcanic mud that has made 50,000 people homeless and relentlessly swallowed up villages, factories, schools, mosques and major transport arteries since it began bubbling out of the earth two years ago.

The planet's largest mud volcano spews 125,000 cubic metres of methane-rich sludge a day, enough to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Today, the mud covers nearly 1,600 acres: about the size of Dublin's Phoenix Park, and shows no sign of slowing, despite being dammed by hastily erected 6m (20ft) walls.

Every week, hundreds of refugees from the Sidoarjo district of Java, about 18 miles from Indonesia's second-largest city of Surabaya, gather to pray for deliverance from what seems an almost biblical disaster.

Shamans and witches have joined seismologists from across the world in a failed attempt to stem the flow of mud.

"I don't know how we're going to survive," frets Nur Kholifah, a housewife who lost her home in Kedong Bendo, the first inundated village. One of about 2,000 refugees living under sheets of plastic a few kilometres from the disaster area, she recalls May 29th, 2006: the day the eruption began.

"I was preparing a meal and suddenly mud began inundating my house. It was hot and smelly." She blames the volcano for the death of her mother a month ago. "She used to be healthy: I think she died from stress."

At Besuki village, bordering the mud lake local people made homeless by the eruption stop passing cars to beg for money.

Officially declared a natural disaster, seismologists and furious locals blame drilling by an oil and gas exploration company with connections to a billionaire government minister. The company, Lapindo Brantas, was drilling for oil 3,000 metres into the ground less than half a kilometre from crowded villages when the volcano erupted.

A team of experts from the UK's Durham University who investigated the site concluded that the drilling penetrated a water-filled aquifer beneath a sea of mud, sending a pressurised mix of both to the surface.

The team's leader Prof Richard Davies said he was "99 percent certain" that the drilling triggered the eruption. Private compensation claims are crawling through the Indonesian courts, but few of the poor victims can afford the legal fees.

Lapindo Brantas is owned by the family of welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie, listed last year as Indonesia's richest man by Forbes magazine with a total fortune of about $9 billion. The minister and his family's company have grown rich on the back of rising global commodity and energy prices, particularly for coal. Critics say the minister's political connections have saved him from stronger government demands for compensation.

PT Bumi Resources, Indonesia's largest mining company, owned by the Bakrie family, has seen its share price increase 400 per cent over the past year as global demand for coal has surged, according to GlobeAsia magazine.

But Yuniwati Teryana, a spokesman for Lapindo, claims the mud flow is a "natural" phenomenon. "Technical and legal facts have not shown that Lapindo is guilty," he said.

Lapindo has refused compensation but offered what it calls "aid" to the victims, including food, rent and down-payments on houses. Many refugees have refused and demand new homes.

Nur Kholifah is one of hundreds who received about $1,500, about 20 per cent of what the company promised, she says. She immediately handed over a quarter to a legal team battling for compensation.

In Besuki, families live in makeshift housing and green military tents. Some have given up hope for compensation. Those who haven't shun publicity for fear of retribution. "I'm afraid to say anything," said a woman who gave only her family name, Amru. She says rain and floods have made the situation worse. "We had several floods. My baby was born after the second flood. We mark out time by floods."

On the outskirts of Reno Kenongo village, now completely uninhabitable, children play in the mud, which they say smells like rotten eggs. Some locals are taking their former homes apart, brick by brick, and selling the bricks at about $14 per 1,000.

"What can we do?" asks a villager called Mrs Lika "We have to survive somehow."

Ms Ngateni laments: "There are no jobs and we are still waiting in vain for some aid or assistance. And now we are turned into beggars. We stop the cars and we beg: that's how we have ended up." She is refusing to leave the area, despite the miserable conditions. "If I leave it could be used as a reason not to pay me any compensation."

The only motorway passing through Surabaya disappears beneath the mud, causing epic traffic jams. The main railroad line also had to be rerouted.

At night, moonlight illuminates the eerie landscape around the area: a dark heavy liquid choking the skeletons of houses and the dead trunks of trees.

Soldiers and government experts dispatched by Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have failed to staunch the flow of mud. Engineers have tried to plug the volcano with concrete and giant rocks, then to cart the mud away in trucks before being overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Everyone lives in fear that one day the concrete dam holding back the mud will burst, and this entire area will disappear from the face of the earth. "There are no precedents for what we are attempting to do here," one engineer told the German Der Spiegel magazine.

As the battle against the mud and Lapindo continues, the worst fears of those made homeless are coming true: complacency is setting in. "It used to be the only topic people were interested in discussing", explains Dwiki Basuki, a lecturer at the local Surabaya Institute of Technology.

"But eventually people got bored. Nothing happened; almost no compensation was paid to the victims. The mud lake there is growing, but people have got used to it."

In the latest maps for Surabaya, the area has even started to appear as a tourist trail. "Hot Mud Lake" is now listed alongside temples and other local sites of interest. The tourists and the curious are hounded by beggars who didn't exist two years ago.

This article is © 2008 The Irish Times, is online here and has also appeared in the print edition.
Picture from the blog of Mikhail Tsyganov.



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