Monday, May 30, 2011

[Geology2] Javan mud survivors scrape by in misery

Javan mud survivors scrape by in misery

Java mudslide

More than 9m of mud sludge is piled up under the Lusi volcano. Source: AFP

IT was a bleak anniversary for Muhammad Budi and Sarwi, marked as every other day for the past five years by Lusi's sulphurous white plume rising from the middle of 640ha of grey-black devastation.

Before May 29, 2006, the two men had family homes, communities and good jobs, but today they scrape a miserable living showing gawkers around the edges of the freakish Sidorajo mud volcano, which ruined their lives.

Sarwi, 42, remembers the Monday morning everything changed. He was breakfasting with his wife and daughter before his shift at a nearby steel plant. "There was a loud bang, a very bad smell, then we saw a fountain of boiling mud. Everybody ran to the village office but there was not enough space for us all," he said.

Sarwi's house in Tampak Siring village was 300m from the world's worst mud eruption - triggered, most scientists believe, by a gas-drilling accident - and is today buried beneath a vast mud dome.

He scrapes a living as an ojek (motorcycle taxi) rider on the 15m-high rock embankment shielding the highway, railway and neighbourhoods on the western flank of Lusi, short for Lumpur (mud) Sidorajo.

The area's ojek association is open only to men from the devastated zone, such as Sarwi and his friend Budi, 28, who had his own scrap business there five years ago.

Their customers - at best one or two each per day, says Sarwi - are mostly sightseers.

Lusi has spewed more than 150 million cubic metres of sterile sludge across a once-prosperous mixed district of farms, light industry and suburban housing on the southern fringe of Surabaya, East Java's largest city.

More than 40,000 people have lost their homes, 33 schools are laid to waste, 65 mosques shut, 30 factories gone, hundreds of smallholdings and fish farms are ruined and thousands of jobs lost.

Groundwater has been fouled beyond the inundated area and hundreds of homes have been demolished by householders relocating brick by brick from spoiled water, reeking air and the continuing threat of wall breaches.

The transport corridor to Surabaya's industrial port, Tanjung Perak, remains severely disrupted, and what used to be a four-hour truck journey can now take 10 hours.

Since Wednesday, the disruption has been worsened by hundreds of protesters sporadically blocking the highway in their campaign to be included in compensation schemes run by BPLS, the government's Lusi disaster management body, and drilling company Lapindo Brantas.

"We've been protesting for five years," said neighbourhood organiser Bambang Subandrio.

"But there's never any answer - we just keep getting the bad water and smelly air."

The government's national audit office has calculated that Lusi's accumulated economic costs will reach $US3.46 trillion ($3.23 trillion) in 2015.

"Perhaps the most devastating and defining aspect of this disaster, as opposed to others, has been the loss of community experienced by the victims," says a new social impact report prepared by Humanitas Foundation, an Australian charity.

"I liked it most at Idul Fitri (the end-of-Ramadan feast) when everyone was here, but now our families, everyone, is scattered," says Budi, standing on the embankment's southwest corner above the grey brackish water and sulphurous mud submerging his village, Jatirejo.

Like most of the displaced, Budi and Sarwi lived on land handed down through generations of family, fixed in their communities.

But not for their children, the ojek men are reminded each day as they ride along the wall.

About 14,000 families have been cut off from their heritage. Hundreds more would risk severing those ties if they could get government money to escape from Lusi's poisoned surroundings.

It hardly matters to those people that hopes are rising that Lusi's worst might have passed.

The daily mud flows have fallen to about 10,000cu m, down from an average of more than 100,000cu m , and after almost five years of continuous eruption, the volcano now goes quiet for up to 13 minutes at a time. "It's changed its behaviour and that's a positive thing," said Durham University geologist Richard Davies, a leading authority on Lusi.

He thinks pressure in the aquifer, pushing water from 2.8km below the surface, might be equalising with pressure at the surface, although subterranean gas continues pushing mud upwards.

In a paper in February, Professor Davies calculated the eruption would probably continue for 26 years before reaching manageable levels - less than a 1000cu m daily flow. Now he's recalculating.

However, he warned that events could still go badly wrong for the people living around Lusi.

The most dangerous of the possibilities would be a major collapse of the mud dome - in one area the surface has subsided 12m in a year - spreading the damage outside the walls.


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