Wed, May 18, 2016 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Disaster tourism a lifeline for volcano victims

MUD LAKE:An impromptu tourism industry has sprung up with, busloads arriving at the weekends and DVDs dramatizing the disaster hugely popular souvenirs

AFP, SIDOARJO, Indonesia

Statues standing semi-submerged in mud, a symbol of the human toll of the 2006 disaster, are pictured at the site of a mud volcano in Sidoarjo, Indonesia, on March 28.

Photo: AFP

Harwati forces a smile as she guides visitors around a bubbling mud volcano in Indonesia, pausing as they snap selfies on the bleak wasteland she once called home.

These disaster tourists are a lifeline for the single mother who lost everything when the earth beneath a paddy field near her village opened up without warning 10 years ago, sending pungent, steaming mud bursting out, unabated.

The mudflow buried villages, factories, shops and even a major highway in the Sidoarjo District of Java. Thirteen people died when an underground gas pipeline in the disaster zone exploded, while thousands were left homeless.

Today, Harwati and many others scrape a meager living from the curious visitors who flock to see rooftops and debris poking above the bubbling mud lake.

“This is the only way to earn a living and afford school for my kids,” said Harwati, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. “After my village was flooded, there were no jobs.”

Visitors pose next to faceless statues lying semi-submerged in the mud, a silent reminder of the human toll of the disaster.

As victims prepare to mark 10 years since the start of the disaster, the mud geysers show no signs of stopping: The equivalent of 10 Olympic swimming pools of mud and water still spurt out daily.

An area roughly equivalent to 650 soccer pitches is now buried beneath up to 40m of sludge.

Intrigue has surrounded the cause of the mudflow ever since it first gushed out in the densely populated farming area on May 29, 2006. There are two main theories on what triggered it — drilling for natural resources or an earthquake.

Mud volcanoes — which do not spew out lava or hot ash, but instead water and clay — occur globally, but Sidoarjo’s is believed to be the biggest in the world.

Efforts to plug it, including with huge concrete balls, have proved futile. The area was declared a disaster zone and sealed off, with warning signs dotting the perimeter.

Undeterred, visitors still came and an impromptu industry has sprung up. Busloads of tourists arrive at the weekends and DVDs dramatizing the disaster are hugely popular souvenirs.

“I was very intrigued. I really wanted to see how big the mud was, because I had heard many houses were buried,” said Andri, a tourist from Surabaya.

Debate about what caused the strange phenomenon has only fueled the fascination and protracted the fight for compensation. Independent studies alternate blame between oil and gas company PT Lapindo Brantas, which was drilling in the area at the time, and an earthquake that struck two days earlier about 260km away.

Lapindo — part of a business empire controlled by Indonesia’s powerful Bakrie family — was eventually ordered to compensate victims, but payments took years, triggering angry protests.

The government finally intervened last year and loaned Lapindo the funds to expedite the remaining payments.

Lapindo says on its Web site that after investigations, “it was determined that no correlation could be proven between the drilling activities and the mud eruption.”

The Sidoarjo Mudflow Handling Agency, a government-backed task force, said more than 3,300 households — or 95 percent of those affected by the volcano — had now received payments.

Tens of thousands of liters of mud leak daily into the nearby rivers and a number of research surveys have detected high levels of heavy metals in the area, including one study by Java’s University of Brawijaya.

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