A volunteer plants mangrove in Tomini Bay in Parigi Moutong, Central Sulawesi, in this undated photograph. Mangrove forests are resistant to the forceful impacts of tsunamis. (Antara Photo/Basri Marzuki)

Japan Advises Indonesia on Disaster Management


MAY 04, 2019

Jakarta. Indonesia is looking at how Japan deals with the aftermath of tsunamis to learn how to prevent the massive death tolls often associated with such disasters. But the Southeast Asian nation will have to muster the resolve and single-mindedness of the Japanese to do what is required. 

Indonesian representatives received many inputs from Japan on how to manage disasters, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides and soil liquefaction, during an intensive meeting in Miyagi and Tokyo on April 25-27.

Japan has become an example for Indonesia because of its experience in handling similar disasters. In 2011, a large earthquake triggered a tsunami that swept across the east coast of Japan. It took years to rebuild the cities hit by the tsunami.

A group of representatives of various Indonesian ministries, led by National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) official Velix Wanggai, also visited cities affected by the 2011 tsunami and met with their mayors to discuss the policies and actions they implemented to recover from the disaster.

"We learned how to reorganize a city, spatial planning to mitigate disasters, relocation strategies, and also how citizens are involved in rehabilitation and reconstruction [after a disaster]," Velix said.

'Disasters Happen When We Forget'

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Higashimatsushima in Miyagi Prefecture is the biggest disaster in the city's history. About 65 percent of the city's land area was submerged and 1,100 residents were killed.

In the aftermath, the city decided to take drastic steps to mitigate similar disasters in the future, which Takafumi Kawaguchi, head of post-disaster reconstruction, presented to the group.

These steps include identification of disaster areas, provision of temporary housing, searching new locations, calculating compensation and construction of new settlements in safer areas. Kawaguchi said the Japanese government takes the motto, "build back better," to heart.

After about four years, residents were relocated to more comfortable and safer places, such as the coastal area of Nobiru.

For disaster victims lacking the means to rebuild their homes, the city administration provided land, rent-free for 30 years, and soft loans to pay for the construction.

"We are developing seven new locations to relocate residents from disaster-prone areas. Nobiru is taking the longest because the relocation area is in the mountains," Kawaguchi said.

The city administration and residents also agreed to form a disaster alert group for every 200 families in Higashimatsushima.

"Each group has its own supply of food and water – enough for three days. The city administration also has its own stock [of food and water] for three days," Kawaguchi said.

He added that the government ensures that emergency supplies are always ready and continuously replenished. 

"Disasters happen when we forget," Kawaguchi said, quoting an ancient Japanese proverb.


In Sendai, a city in the same prefecture, safety is the only consideration when identifying disaster-prone areas, no matter the size of the area that must be vacated.

Fumihiko Imamura, a famous tsunami expert and director of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University, said the region affected by the 2011 tsunami in Sendai should not be used for housing. It has become a multiple defense zone for tsunamis.

These tsunami defenses start with a 7.2-meter-high dike on the shoreline, the planting of pine forests, then an embankment and another dike, and finally elevated roads that also function to prevent floods.

The further away from the coast, the higher the area, which gives residents time to safely evacuate.

"In 2000, we actually predicted that there would be earthquakes and tsunamis within a period of 30 years. We had prepared ourselves for earthquakes with magnitudes of between 7.5 and 7.8," Imamura said.

"But then what happened was a [magnitude] 9.0 earthquake," he added.

The devastating earthquake on March 11, 2011, triggered tsunami waves of more than 10 meters high, killing 904 people in Sendai and destroying more than 30,000 buildings. About 19,000 people died across Japan.

The Indonesian representatives also visited Ishinomaki to learn about disaster mitigation, including the construction of a layered security system.

Local officials explained the need to build sea dikes, followed by artificial forests and elevated highways that also function as secondary dikes, which slow the flow of water and give people more time to evacuate.

According to research, this method can decrease the evacuation time to about 30 minutes. However, evacuation areas must also be established, such as in wave-resistant high-rise buildings or hills with clear routes in coastal areas.

In Onagawa, Mayor Yoshiaki Suda explained the strategy for rearranging areas affected by the tsunami.

"Buildings are strictly prohibited in the most-affected areas. For the second category, buildings are only allowed for nonresidential businesses. There are disaster-prone areas where homes can be built, but living areas must be located on second floors, while first floors must either be vacant or used as garages," he said.

Following their visit, the representatives held a discussion with Japanese experts, many of whom are already involved in disaster management in Central Sulawesi and who have conducted research there.

Aside from tsunami expert Imamura, Masyhur Irsyam of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) and the geologists Kenji Ishihara and Takaji Kokusho were also among the participants to examine the causes of soil liquefaction in Central Sulawesi. The discussion was initiated by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Obstacles in Indonesia

Efforts to rehabilitate and mitigate disasters in Central Sulawesi were immediately hampered when disaster-prone areas were identified. Housing in areas most prone to disaster must also be relocated.

Matters became more complicated when landowners demanded compensation or were influenced by other parties to refuse relocation.

"They said they were willing to move, and then changed their minds overnight," Palu Mayor Hidayat said. "On top of that, in 2020 there will be another mayoral election in Palu. So many politicians are 'playing around' here."

Reny Windyawati, spatial planning director at the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning, said there were several other obstacles to identifying disaster-struck areas in Central Sulawesi, such as the variety of natural disasters that hit the area in September 2018 and the scattered locations of the disaster areas.

"Because Central Sulawesi is not only [prone to] tsunamis, but also earthquakes, soil liquefaction and landslides," Reny said.

Determining disaster-prone areas in Central Sulawesi is not as easy as in Japan, where they are usually from the coastline to as far inland as a tsunami can reach. In Central Sulawesi, the locations of soil liquefaction, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis are scattered.

Culturally, the Japanese people obey their leaders. "In Indonesia, even a 20-meter difference in the size of land would become a problem," Reny said.

However, the demarcation of disaster-prone areas was finally passed with 11 officials signing the document, including four ministers, two agency heads, a governor, a regional legislative council chairman, a mayor and two district chiefs.

The document states that new buildings are prohibited in so-called red zones, or disaster-prone areas, while recommending that old buildings be moved.

Another obstacle is slow decision-making by the central and regional governments.

Patta Tope, chairman of the Central Sulawesi technical team, said the action plan had been completed some time ago and the budget submitted, but that there had been no response from the central government.

"Regional proposals have not been accommodated in ministries and that is the main obstacle," said Patta, who previously served as head of the Central Sulawesi Regional Development Planning Agency.

Another problem is slow assistance from the central government, such as life insurance and compensation for disaster victims and their families.

"But we can understand this, because for example, to provide compensation, we must make sure who the heirs are. If a whole family died, we must find out who the other heirs are," Patta said.

"What we need most, is to follow up on the action plan we made, which refers to the Bappenas masterplan. The total loss is Rp 23 trillion [$1.6 billion], but we need Rp 36 trillion, because we have to rebuild damaged roads, so it will definitely go up," he said.

Velix, the Bappenas official, said the issue would be resolved soon.

"We will hold a meeting in early May; everything will be discussed and decided there," he said.