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Disaster risk reduction in Padang — not just earthquakes

Indonesia, October 6, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    REUTERS/ IFRC/Wayne Ulrich, courtesy of www.alertnet.org  </span>
    Deforestation and overcultivation contributed to earthquake-triggered landslides, in which hundreds of people perished. Photo: REUTERS/ IFRC/Wayne Ulrich, courtesy of www.alertnet.org

Flying in to Padang to help our team with earthquake response, an aerial view makes it clear that earthquakes are not the only problem people have to deal with now or anticipate in the future.

The landscape has a beauty that sits in stark contrast to the recent disaster — but its reading is full of warning signs. The flight along the coast by the city, before circling inland and making our final approach for landing over rugged hills, shows telltale warning signs.

Looking inland, the city sits on a large plain, barely above sea level. Two hazards call out. If there were to be a future tsunami, as we saw in similar landscapes in Aceh and Sri Lanka, that water could travel a long way inland. Coastal protection is minimal. Ironically, where the few stone and concrete protrusions emerge into the sea like a giant’s comb running parallel to the shore, there is no mangrove behind them — just exposed habitation. The areas with remaining mangrove look as though they will give better protection to those behind them.

Either way, if even the moderate climate projection models hold true, sea level rise threatens the city. With the added hazard of more frequent, and likely more intensive storms, Padang has a lot to protect itself from.

The plane wheels around, taking us inland over the hills before descending to the ground. We scan for the landslides reported in the UN situation reports and now covered by the media. It becomes obvious what weaknesses the earthquake tremors could work upon. Large patches of forest are felled by human hands, weakening the soil and making the earth more vulnerable; hillsides are exposed by slash and burn agriculture, again exacerbating the chance of a hill giving way.

Under regular circumstances this is already a dangerous issue; there are regular reports of houses swept away, many killed by landslides after heavy rains. The government had already tried to run a program giving cash incentives for people to adopt better upland agriculture practices. These are just the sorts of landscapes that climate change will make more vulnerable. Add inevitable earthquakes because they sit along the dangerous Alpide Belt, which is the second most seismic region in the world with 17 percent of the world’s largest earthquakes, and disasters are bound to happen.

This does not mean that people are defenseless. But what is needed is a disaster risk reduction plan that incorporates current and future risks and places them in the context of human vulnerability and activity. Mercy Corps is right now working on a strategy to foster and integrate earthquake recovery, economic stability and sustainable disaster risk reduction to protect interventions in all of these areas.

The indicator of success is how well we help communities deal with the next big calamity, whether a spontaneous and acute event like an earthquake, or a long and chronic challenge like rising seas. Or — more challenging and likely still — a combination of them both.