PORONG, EAST JAVA — The place is a wasteland, a ghost town. No people, no vegetation. All that’s here is a lake of grayish sludge from an erupting mud volcano. White smoke billows from its crater and a stink much like that of rotten eggs fills the air.
This was once a densely populated village in Porong, Sidoarjo district, in Indonesia’s East Java province. Now it is uninhabitable; farmlands and human settlements are buried under layers of mud that first squirted out of the ground in May 2006 and has yet to stop oozing forth.
A distance away is Porong River where murky water from Sidoarjo is being pumped from steel pipes protruding from one side, connected to mud containment ponds around the volcano. Mounds of hardened mud lie by the riverbanks. Used as a channel to divert the mudflow to the Java Sea, the river itself is now one of the casualties of the continuing eruption of the biggest and most studied mud volcano in the world.
That the river is dirty is an understatement. After becoming a dumping ground for the sludge, Porong River is now heavily silted, its once clean and clear water murky and toxic. Its future is as grim as the prospects for a durable rehabilitation plan for the riverine communities and other villages affected by the disaster.
Antoni, from Kaliwaje village in nearby Jabon district, is one of the thousands of people who depend on fish and shrimp farming and whose incomes have fallen because of the mudflow. He says pollution in the river has caused fish to migrate, leaving villagers along the river with little or no fish to catch for their daily needs, much less to sell.
“Fish catch in my pond has dropped and fish stocks in other ponds have dwindled because of the poor quality of the water,” says Antoni. “Shrimp farmers are affected the most.”
One of the tributaries of Brantas River – the second largest in Java — Porong River had been a source of sustenance for thousands of families living around it. It was the spawning ground for different fish species and shellfish, even as it irrigated rice fields and sugarcane plantations, and fed mangroves, fish and shrimp ponds. Indeed, the river was the lifeblood of the riparian communities.
All that changed months after hot mud first spewed out a fissure on the ground in the sub-district of Porong in Sidoarjo on 29 May 2006. And while there is reportedly less mud gushing from the crater these days, it still poses a problem for disaster managers in the province – and obviously more so for the people who used to depend on it.
The continuing eruption has displaced up to 60,000 people in 16 villages in Sidoarjo, according to government estimates. The thick sludge spewed by the rudely awakened volcano has swamped hectares of farmlands, thousands of houses, mosques, dozens of factories, and other public infrastructure in the district. It has severely damaged the livelihoods of the villagers, ruined the investment potential of the area, and buried many people’s hopes for a bright future for their children.
That singular occurrence more than six years ago — described by scientists as a natural phenomenon triggered by human error — has turned into a humanitarian disaster and an environmental nightmare.
A volcano’s rude awakening
Villagers in Renokenongo, in the southern part of Sidoarjo, had reported seeing hot mud and steam squirting from a crack on the ground on that fateful day in 2006. The air was soon engulfed with a powerful stench and villagers also began experiencing eye irritations.
The fissure expelled mud and gas without letup. The muddy discharge at first formed a puddle that then quickly turned into a pond, and then into a lake that would smother four villages initially. But the affected area would expand as the volcano disgorged more mud.
Not long after, the underground volcano came to be known as ‘Lusi’, a contraction of the words lumpur (the Indonesian word for mud) and Sidoarjo – as would the muck it kept on throwing up. Others began calling the sludge the ‘Lapindo mudflow’, after the drilling company that was being blamed for the unstoppable sludge inundating an ever-growing area in a once lush part of East Java. After all, the steaming hot mud first poured out from a vent less than 200 metres away from where oil and gas consortium PT Lapindo Brantas was drilling an exploratory well.
This is how the company relates the event: On 29 May 2006, in a field near the town of Sidoarjo, East Java, a flow of hot mud, water and gases suddenly erupted, sprouting high into the air and had the appearance of geysers like those seen in the famous Yellowstone National Park in the United States.
According to news reports, the company was drilling the exploratory well to a depth of about 3,000 metres. Technicians experienced a ‘kick’ or an influx of water into the well’s borehole. A day later, mud began belching out of the ground about 183 metres away from the drill site of Lapindo, where the majority shareholder was the family of Indonesian tycoon and Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie.
At the time, Bakrie was also Indonesia’s chief minister of people’s welfare. Bakrie would deny any corporate responsibility for the mudflow, pointing to an earthquake that he said had triggered the belching. That quake occurred in Yogyakarta, some 300 kms away from Sidoarjo, two days before Lusi decided to release mud and steam.
Geologists would report the mudflow as intensifying over time, increasing from a rate of 5,000 cubic metres a day in June 2006 to 25,000 cubic metres a day one month later. By September, or four months after the first spurt, the average daily volume of mud being expelled had risen sharply to 125,000 cubic metres. In 2011, a government report would say that at its peak, the amount of mud ejected by Lusi was reaching 180,000 cubic metres a day.
While baffled scientists studied the phenomenon, the police conducted their own investigation. They found negligence on the part of the company as engineers failed to install a casing around the gas bore while drilling. Geologists would also say that the casing would have plugged the hole and prevented a kick or blowout, which caused the mud to shoot up to the surface, pushed up by gas underneath.
“Because they don’t use a casing, the mud went wild,” the Australian newspaper The Age had quoted geologist Amien Widodo, head of the Disaster Research Centre at the Surabaya Institute of Technology, as saying in 2007.
Losing to lusi
The cause of the mudflow has been the subject of countless debates and studies by experts from around the world. While the scientific community remains divided, experts are one in their belief that the belching is not about to stop anytime soon. Depending on the basis used for calculations, experts estimate that the mudflow could continue anywhere from another 26 to 84 years.
As technicians and scientists were frantically studying options to stop the mudflow in the early months, others came with creative solutions that ranged from the scientific to the surreal. A team from the Bandung Institute of Technology, for instance, attempted to stop the gusher by dropping concrete balls into the mouth of the mud volcano. But that proved futile. There was also the desperate head of one village that had been swallowed up by mud who offered a reward of 100 million rupiah ($10,000) for anyone able to convince the spirits to halt the mudflow. Even stranger than the offer was the response. More than 100 people turned up to try their luck, among them magicians, shamans, and witches who took turns in making offerings or casting spells on the mud volcano.
Weeks into the disaster, thousands of people were evacuated and resettled into temporary dwellings. The government later mobilised troops and workers to build earth dykes and containment ponds to arrest the flow of the sludge.
Four months after mud began gushed out of the ground, Sidoarjo was declared a disaster zone. The Yudhoyono government ordered PT Minarak Lapindo Jaya (MLC), the holding firm of Lapindo Brantas, to pay for the cleanup and to compensate residents and business affected by the mudflows.
Lapindo, which had earlier provided emergency assistance to the victims, agreed to pay damages. But Bakrie said that the compensation was being given only in keeping with “Indonesian values”, still insisting that the company had no liability.
Under two government decrees, Lapindo was to pay compensation to those displaced by the mudflow. The scheme called for an immediate payout of 20 percent of the estimated value of their property, while the remaining 80 percent would be given within two years after. But as the number of displaced people grew, so did the bill that Lapindo’s holding firm would have to foot.
At the very least, there were families who received the first 20 percent of what Lapindo said they were due. Five years after the offer and initial payout was made, however, many affected residents say they have yet to receive any compensation from the company. Those who have moved to resettlement areas have found that they have no means of livelihood there. Some families are also in limbo because they have no proof of land ownership and are therefore ineligible to receive compensation.
By April 2012, a senior MLC official was acknowledging that his employer still owes the affected residents a little over one trillion rupiah (about $100 million) out of the 3.8 trillion rupiah it has been ordered to pay, according to news reports.
The official was also quoted as saying that Lapindo was prioritising payments to those who are owed small amounts because it did not have enough funds to cover the larger amounts, even hinting that the company may have to take out a loan to meet its obligations.
The waiting game
More than six years after the disaster struck, there is still no viable and sustainable programme to addresses the social and economic impact of the mud volcano eruption. The displaced families who continue to live in difficult conditions feel they have been forgotten and betrayed.
They wish the government was more supportive and would not simply leave their fate to Lapindo – even though the government has already spent some three trillion rupiah ($312 million) in compensation payments and for mudflow containment efforts. It has even ignored increasing public opposition to the use of taxpayers’ money for mitigating the disaster, setting aside an additional five trillion rupiah ($520 million) in state funds between 2012 and 2014 for such.
Formal charges were never brought against Lapindo by the police, who several times submitted case files against the company but were rejected each time by prosecutors. In August 2009, the police halted the investigations and said they did not have enough evidence to continue. But they explained that only the criminal investigation was closed and compensation ordered by the government should continue.
Other attempts to make Lapindo pay for the disaster failed. In 2007, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation brought a lawsuit against the company in the Jakarta courts but they lost. The Supreme Court later rejected their appeal.
In August 2012, though, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (HAM) concluded that the mudflow in Sidoarjo was a human-rights violation and that PT Lapindo Brantas was responsible for the man-made disaster.
HAM Chairman Ifdhal Kasim said that after a three-year investigation that began in 2008, the company was found to have violated the local residents’ right to life, safety, health, housing, employment, education, and social security. The Commission urged Lapindo and its stockholders – including Indonesian company Medco PT Medco Energi Internasional and Australian mining firm Santos Ltd – to complete the compensation to the victims of the mudflow.
How far the Commission’s non-binding recommendations would go and how Lapindo would respond to these remain to be seen. What is certain, however, is that Porong River is among the disaster’s major victims, and that its continuing deterioration can only have serious repercussions for Sidoarjo and its residents.
Smothering a river
Authorities were well aware of the risks of diverting the mudflow to the river right from the start, but they have been consistent is saying that they have been left with no choice. Given the magnitude of the mud being disgorged by the volcano, dams and dykes built to contain the mudflow simply proved inadequate and ineffective.
Dumping the mudflow into the river is the only solution, an official of the Sidoarjo Mudflow Mitigation Agency (BPLS), which was set up to handle the disaster, argued in 2007. That was the year when President Susilo Bambang Yudhono gave the order for the lusi to be channeled to Porong River. Ahmad Zulkamaen, then spokesman for the agency, said they knew that the increased sedimentation would change the waterway’s ecosystem. “But,” he asked, “what can we do?”
Yet, later, another BPLS official would dismiss fears about the impact of siltation on the river. According to Karyadi, the agency’s deputy for infrastructure, the mud deposits would be carried away by rainwater and would flow upstream. He added that BPLS would be dredging mud to prevent the silted river from overflowing its banks and cause flooding.
It has been a promise that the government has so far kept fairly well, save for days when frustrated locals put up protest barricades in front of the BPLS office – essentially holding the agency’s dredging equipment hostage. Then again, even with regular dredging, Porong River has hardly been free of lusi, which has also been mixed with oil in recent years.
WALHI, which has continually cautioned the government on the move to channel lusi into the river, says that lusi alone contains harmful levels of hydrogen sulphide, cadmium, and lead. It says that while the effects of exposure to these may not be immediate, the impact would eventually be revealed and felt years from now, and for generations to come in Porong. High amounts of hydrogen sulphide, for example, can render water turbid and result in algal blooms, while also leading to diseases in rice plants. Lead exposure has been linked to many illnesses, including nerve disorders and infertility; among children, it has been linked to various health problems, among them kidney damage and decreased bone and muscle growth. Chronic exposure to cadmium, meanwhile, can cause anaemia, bone diseases, pulmonary emphysema, and even cancer.
As it is, water in local wells has already been rendered non-drinkable because of lusi. Says Nura, who is from the village of Besuki: “Now we have to buy water for drinking and cooking. We only use the water from the well for washing. But unless we use strong detergent, the water doesn’t even turn foamy. It’s the poor quality of the water.”
Undoubtedly, however, it is Porong River’s deterioration that is worrying locals more. Today shrimp and milkfish are in danger of dying should there be river water intrusion in the ponds. That would be devastating for Sidoarjo’s economy – and damaging to the country’s as well; some 30 percent of Indonesia’s shrimp exports valued at $80 million annually come from farms in this district.
Farmers here are known as well for their traditional aquaculture, which is also called ‘poly-culture of shrimps and milkfish’ wherein both fish and prawn are cultured in one pond. In addition, the district hosts the largest organic shrimp farms in Indonesia.
But shrimp and fish farmers feel aggrieved. They say that before lusi began filling up their river, they could count on having harvests thrice a year. Now, they say, they are down to one annually.
“I used to make seven million rupiah (700 dollars) each harvest before the mud came,” says 42-year-old Bambang, from Tegal Sari village, which is kilometres away from the source of the mudflow. “Now I make 300,000 rupiah (30 dollars) each time the harvest is good.”
He adds, shaking his head, “I sometimes look for crabs on the coast at night to help cover our needs.”
Bambang may well bump heads with Yusuf, 29, whenever he does so. Yusuf says he has had to make adjustments since his work as fish porter has been adversely affected because of the decline in fish farming. “Now I am looking for crabs on the coast like any other citizen,” says Yusuf. “I earn about 25,000 rupiah ($2.50) a day compared to 100,000 rupiah ($10) as fish porter.”
Rice farmers are not faring any better. They complain that their rice yields are not only declining, the quality of the crop has also deteriorated.
Some have experienced worse. Muhammad Irsyad, who says he used to be a small-time rice farmer, says that after the mudflow was diverted to Porong River, hectares of ricefields went dry and could no longer be used. He says he tried to haul stones at first, but the work proved to be too hard for him. So he turned to breeding crickets, but found the competition from his neighbours who went into the same venture too stiff. He says he has no land title to show Lapindo to claim compensation. To keep his three children in school, Muhammad says he sold whatever furniture he could salvage from the family home that has been smothered by mud.
Many wives and mothers, however, are pitching in to keep their families afloat. In one village, a group of women taught themselves how to make cakes, grow vegetables, and learn other new skills to earn extra income for their families. For these wives of fishers who can no longer depend on the river, keeping busy is also one way to keep from thinking too much about things that seem out of their control.
Another all-women group has organised Sunday activities such as dancing, singing, poetry reading, and other activities that help create a sense of community for the families who have been uprooted from their homes, especially the children who feel a sense of loss after leaving their old school and friends they had known since birth. The women also collect monetary donations that they keep in a common fund from which to draw during medical emergencies.
In another village, yet another woman has taken up a new skill in her new neighbourhood. Nurul Fatin, 39, now earns some income by sewing clothes in her new home in Katon Podoh Jangkring. A former cigarette factory worker, Nurul is now a seamstress and the family breadwinner since her husband is out of work.
The mother of four says the children have to travel far to get to their school, but they were adapting to the new environment. Despite their circumstances, she says she is happy because their family is intact.
Then there are the likes of Harwati who have lost their husbands and are raising their children on their own. Harwati, 36, says when her husband was still living, she used to just stay home to look after their two children. These days, she drives a motorcycle around Siring village from morning till late afternoon. “It is hard to work under the sun all day,” says Harwati. “And I have to compete with others for passengers.”
She says if she had the choice, she would like a factory job. But who would set up a business in a place like this, she asks. “I am just hoping the compensation from Lapindo would come.”
She and thousands of others. Every year, around the time of the anniversary of the disaster, some Sidoarjo residents hold protest actions, including hunger strikes, in Jakarta or in Porong in an effort to force MLC to complete the compensation payments. This year, residents blocked the main road in Porong and also blockaded the government office helping in rehabilitation work.
One man went several steps further and embarked on a 25-day journey on foot to Jakarta from his hometown to dramatise the victims’ campaign for justice. Hari Suwandi said he wanted to raise support for their claim of compensation from the family of Aburizal Bakrie.
“We want compensation for our losses, payment of which is left unresolved to this day,” Hari was quoted by the Jakarta Globeas saying in a press conference in early July.
But weeks later, Hari would shame his fellow victims and shock activists who had lent them support when he appeared on television and reversed his earlier statements.
In the TV interview, Hari said that he regretted his protest action and apologised to the former Cabinet member and his family for tarnishing the Bakrie name.
The interview was broadcast over TV One, a station that counts the Bakries among its owners. That Hari was offered a financial package to change his statement is no longer the question, activists say. The question, they say, is how much he had been promised and what that means for tens of thousands of other victims.
Still, there have been speculations – reported by at least one English-language newspaper in Jakarta– that MLC may well complete compensation for the people affected by lusi just before the 2014 elections.
The reason: Aburizal Bakrie has announced his candidacy for the 2014 presidential polls.
[Argentina Cardoso is a reporter of Radio and Television Timor Leste (RTTL) in Dili.]