Social issues

Stuck at Denpasar: why Mt Agung is more important than your cancelled flight

Bali, as we know, is an island province of Indonesia- it includes a few neighbouring islands (Penida, Lembongan and Ceningan), is a popular tourist destination, and is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Australians. The island sits just 8 degrees south of the equator and boasts one of the most biodiverse coral reefs on earth, as well as high mountain ranges.

Erected from Earth’s fiery mantle, Mt. Agung measures at a whopping 3,031 m and is Bali’s highest point. The volcano is very active and has erupted a number of times in the past. In 1843, Swiss botanist, Heinrich Zollinger recorded concise information on Mt. Agung’s eruption for the first time.

“After having been dormant for a long time, the mountain began to be alive again. In the first days of the activity earthquake shocks were felt after which followed the emission of ash, sand and stones.”

The subsequent eruption took place in 1963-4, and was one of the largest in Indonesian history. The eruption devastated the land, with lava flows that stretched for 7km down the northern slope of the mountain eventually killing 1,100-1,500 people. Pyroclastic flows swept through villages after additional eruptions, and caused fast moving currents of hot volcanic gas and debris to cascade down the mountain devastating everything in its path. Gunung Agung’s 1963 eruption is considered one of the most important volcanic events of the 20th century, not just by the sheer devastation but by the way it changed the way scientists looked at eruptions. The 1963 event led to better their understanding of these truly humbling natural events.

The damage caused by the ’63/’64 catastrophe didn’t leave just ash clouds and rubbled earth in its wake, but greater socioeconomic effects following the transmigration of shelterless and displaced Balinese. The plan was to have displaced Balinese people transmigrated to less populated parts of Indonesia in a bid to resettle those whose homes were not safe to return to. However, fears that transmigrants would attribute to “Javanization” and “Islamization” of the native populations in the surrounding islands began to surface. Controversy and violence spread later, and would end with 500,000 deaths- 80,000 of which were Balinese- during the Indonesian Communist Purge.

Fast forward 54 years later to September 2017, Mt. Agung degassed its smouldering caverns into a plume of ash and debris after laying dormant for decades. The news of this seismic event has spread fast and 130,000 people have been evacuated out of the exclusion zone following the highest state of volcanic alert in 50 years. A 12 km exclusion zone has been put into action as seismologists predicted an imminent eruption. Currently no major catastrophic events have taken place as of yet.

However, life in Bali has paused, its lifeblood ‘tourism’ hanging in the balance as news agencies and people with little else better to do speculate on what’s to come in the following weeks or months. Bali’s economy relies on tourism- 60-70% of the nation’s economy is tourism based. Jobs that cater to or in someway benefit from tourists face a very real and terrifying consequence if more eruptions occur. 20% of Bali’s overall workforce is dependant on that sector and without it tens of thousands of Balinese will suffer. The south of the island- where most tourism occurs- could fade once busy streets fall silent.

The phenomena had already made impact this year when the Balinese government issued an evacuation of civilians living at the base of Gunung Agung in the town of the once-tourist-ridden Udud. 40,000 of its residents left to seek refuge outside of the danger-zone, and streets that were once bustling with visitors and locals resembled that of ghost towns, abandoned in fear of the imminent eruption. As this article is written, civilians of towns surrounding the base of the mountain are returning home after weeks of waiting for any news on the situation.

Although Australian news channels focus entirely on the disappointment of the tourist, the reality is these events have been catastrophic for Indonesia both physically and socio-economically in the past. No one knows when or what is going to happen- except that the volcanic activity has suspended the lives of some who live in Bali. Cancelled flights have in the past and the present affected shop owners and businesses, and the warning of the imminent eruption has slowed down the pace of tourism and the lives of those who living near the base. Given that past eruptions have negatively impacted the island, it is fair to assume that the worst is yet to come still and- having had dealt with similar situations decades ago- maybe there stands a greater chance of rebuilding.

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