x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Indonesia versus the volcano

Just as Eyjafjallajökull was finally settling down, Gunung Merapi, a classic conical volcano on the other side of the globe, was stirring back into life after a four-year hiatus.

M Wahid Supriyadi, the ambassador of Indonesia: ‘Every time something like this [a natural disaster] happens, the government of the UAE is always willing to offer assistance.’
M Wahid Supriyadi, the ambassador of Indonesia: ‘Every time something like this [a natural disaster] happens, the government of the UAE is always willing to offer assistance.’

In March 2010, following nearly two centuries of inactivity, Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull erupted. It was more than six months before the volcano finally came to rest once more. In the meantime it had been responsible for grounding European air traffic and filling hours of airtime on the world's rolling news channels.

Just as Eyjafjallajökull was finally settling down, Gunung Merapi, a classic conical volcano on the other side of the globe, was stirring back into life after a four-year hiatus.

There was nothing new there, which may account for the less-than-blanket coverage it received in the western media. The Mountain of Fire, in the Central Java region of Indonesia, has been erupting on a regular basis for more than four centuries. A thin plume of smoke can usually be seen rising from its summit even on its calmer days. The past three decades have been punctuated by six periods of substantial activity.

This latest series of eruptions, however, are widely considered to be Merapi's most violent explosions for more than a century. They have displaced 400,000 residents from their homes. More than 250 people have also lost their lives.

M Wahid Supriyadi, the Indonesian ambassador to the UAE, agreed to meet me a few days after Merapi became active again. This was a short while after a tsunami unexpectedly struck a cluster of small, sparsely populated islands close to Sumatra. Indonesia was the country worst affected by the devastating tsunami six years ago, which claimed more than 200,000 lives in 13 countries. Indonesian fatalities were said to have accounted for more than half of that number.

We began by discussing these recent disasters. I was expecting our conversation to be solemn, but the ambassador appeared remarkably philosophical. Apparently, when you are born into a country that sits wholly within the Pacific's volatile Ring of Fire, you learn to confront the risks apparent in living so close to danger.

It transpired that the Indonesian community here - which numbers approximately 90,000 expatriates, around 80 per cent of whom are employed as housemaids, the majority of the rest being skilled professionals in the oil and construction industries - emerged unscathed from recent events.

"This tsunami was relatively small in scale and happened in a remote, isolated area, so the community here has been largely unaffected," the ambassador explained. He assured me that the authorities in his home country were well-equipped to handle natural catastrophes. "The National Agency for Disaster Management was established after the tsunami struck in 2004," he said. "We have lots of experience in these cases."

How, I asked, did the community draw together when such disasters strike at home?

"My role is just to encourage them [Indonesian expatriates] to help each other. We do some fundraising, but it is not the amount of money any one person can give that is important. It is more a sign of togetherness and about demonstrating to the rest of the community that we care about each other."

Supriyadi recently attended a charity event organised by a group of petro-chemical workers in Ruwais. It raised more than Dh20,000 to help relief efforts at home. A similar fundraiser in the capital generated approximately Dh19,000 in donations to help those affected by these recent tragedies.

Supriyadi also acknowledged the more formal support that the UAE had offered. "Every time something like this happens at home, the government of the UAE is always one of the first countries willing to offer assistance," he said.

In fact, just ten days ago, a team of experts from the Zayed Giving Initiative led by Dr Adel al Shamry travelled to Indonesia to establish a temporary children's hospital close to the volcano relief area. The UAE's other Indonesian initiatives have included substantial investment in Sheikh Khalifa City, a project to deliver new housing in Banda Aceh, one of the areas that bore the brunt of the tsunami in 2004.

One of Supriyadi's two daughters, Lia, lives just 25 kilometres away from Merapi's summit - too close, one would imagine, for comfort. "There is some dust and ashes where she lives, but she is safe," he said. Others have been less fortunate.

Marijan, an elder statesman of the community charged with maintaining a relationship with the spirits who inhabit Merapi, was found dead a few days after the volcano erupted again. When the government evacuated the local population, the volcano's so-called spiritual guardian elected to stay on the mountainside to await his destiny. Others too, stayed with him, on a patch of land which offered great rewards as well as huge risks.

"Merapi is the most fertile mountain in Indonesia, but it erupts very regularly. Unfortunately he could not escape," Supriyadi explained. "It is said that the eruption also brings luck to the villagers there, in the sense that the land becomes more fertile. You can plant anything and it will flourish."

The sand found on the foothills of Merapi, a by-product of the the mountain's regular explosions, is also considered a prize asset by the construction industry.

But the time allotted to our interview was running out, as indeed was Mr Supriyadi's tenure as Indonesia's diplomatic representative in the UAE. Having been sent to the capital more than two years ago, he anticipated moving on to another part of the world next year, although he would be happy to stay if asked.

"Our mission here is to encourage co-operation and understanding," he said. "Still, much work needs to be done."

* Nick March