More than 70% of the Indonesian population lives within 100 km of one or more of the country’s 130 active volcanoes, or 175 million people. 8.6 million Indonesians live within 10 km of an active volcano, well within the range of deadly pyroclastic flows.
After volcanic eruptions, communities are often encouraged to “build back better”. But is it possible to rebuild more safely, and if so, how? What steps can be taken after a disaster to build resilience to future hazards? The concepts of ‘safer’ and ‘better’ are context-specific and difficult to quantify in post-disaster reconstruction. These are important questions, but my research indicates that there are no simple answers.
The recent eruption of Mount Semeru in December 2021 on the Indonesian island of Java bears striking similarities to the eruption of Mount Merapi in 2010. As Indonesia’s most active volcano, Merapi has seen more than 70 eruptions since 1548. It is located in one of the most densely populated regions of Java, with over 11,000 people living on the slopes of the mountain. The 2010 eruption displaced 350,000 people, killed 353 and injured 577 people. Nearly 4,000 houses were damaged by flows of volcanic material. As with Semeru, heavy rains before and after the eruption caused lahars that washed ash and rocks into towns and destroyed critical infrastructure.
Alarmingly, the gap between the availability and demand for global aid is widening, with a shortfall of US$15 billion projected to meet global humanitarian needs. A study by the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters found that more than 116 million homes worldwide were damaged or destroyed by disasters between 1994 and 2013. Over the next 20 years, from 2000 to 2019, global economic losses nearly doubled, valued at around $2.97. trillion versus US$1.63 trillion. On average, people who reside in low-income countries (compared to high-income countries) are six times more likely to be injured, lose their homes, be displaced or need assistance emergency after a disaster.
A key part of mitigating these impacts is investing in safer and more resilient housing, both before and after disasters.
In 2015, the international community adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction with the aim of preventing new disaster risks and reducing existing risks. It sets out clear actions for Member States to protect investments in human development against disasters. But how effective is it?
Build Back Better (BBB) is a mantra at the heart of the Sendai Framework’s post-disaster recovery vision to reduce vulnerability to future disasters and support community resilience to cope with physical, social, environmental shocks and economic. In the context of the damage caused by the volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, BBB offers the opportunity to rebuild stronger, safer and more disaster-resilient infrastructures and systems. This may include introducing building codes and regulations, establishing and implementing land use planning laws that limit reconstruction in high-risk locations, or replacing damaged assets with replacements. adapted to the context and technologically updated. The recovery is therefore an opportunity to resize the infrastructure to better meet the needs of the community.
Building back better from Merapi
My research examined whether and how affected communities managed to rebuild better after the Merapi eruption in 2010, with implications for other volcanic eruptions such as Semeru. I focused on Jogoyudan, which is located in Yogyakarta. I assessed the effectiveness of housing assistance through a household survey to understand housing quality a decade after the eruption. Housing quality was captured through eight dimensions which included access to water supply, sanitation, overcrowding, electricity, structural system roof structure, roof covering and cladding. floor. These factors were selected based on an extensive literature review and merged to create a housing quality score. This score was based on the sum of the dimensions of the presence or absence of housing quality.
Among disaster-affected households, assistance was correlated with better housing quality. I found that 48% of households that received housing assistance reported improved quality of life after the disaster, and a further 31% maintained their pre-disaster condition. Compared to households that did not receive assistance, only 13% reported an improvement in quality of life, with the majority (72%) reporting no change. Considering that the long-term improvement of household living standards should be the underlying priority of any assistance program, this offers a positive perspective on the impact of housing assistance.
Housing assistance was also provided to some low-income households whose houses were not damaged by the lahar flows. The housing quality score of assisted and undamaged households was also higher than the average score of households whose housing was damaged. That is, households that were not affected by the disaster but received assistance saw an improvement in housing quality and were above the overall community average . In addition, unassisted households that were not affected by the disaster had the lowest average housing quality of all the groups studied. This shows how post-disaster assistance can be a leverage point to address pre-disaster inequalities, suggesting that assistance can offset pre-existing housing inequalities.
My research revealed that while assistance results in better quality, there are more layers to post-disaster recovery. We also observed that some self-recovered households were able to obtain the same level of housing quality. For example, the presence of construction skills may have compensated for the absence of assistance.
These results call into question how the BBB works in practice. Is the lack of variance in housing quality scores within the study community a sign that the damaged houses have been successfully rebuilt to the standards of the rest of the community? Or were the most socio-economically disadvantaged households more damaged by the disaster – so did the assistance bring them down to the community level? If so, achieving a quality of housing equivalent to that of the rest of the community may indicate an effective instance of BBB. The lack of a single disaster recovery methodology suggests that much more work needs to be done to measure results and understand what “best” results actually look like.
As the gap between aid need and availability widens, and as climate change continues to exacerbate the already deleterious effects of disasters on affected communities, it is more important than ever that we understand how to streamline and get the most out of the BBB process.
This article was made possible through the generous support of the Sydney Southeast Asia Center through its residency program. The research reported on in this article was funded by Habitat for Humanity International. Special thanks to Jim Kendall, Andreas Hapsoro and Gregg McDonald. I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Aaron Opdyke, for his continued support throughout my research. Additional thanks are extended to contributors including Dr Tantri Handayani of Universitas Gadjah Mada, Dr Yunita Idris of Universitas Syiah Kuala, as well as Habitat for Humanity Indonesia. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the funding agencies.
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