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Lake Maninjau

Indonesia, October 10, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Malka Older/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The earthquake-damaged rumah adat, the traditional meeting house for the community in the village of Bukit Tinggi. In front of the building are tents for families whose houses are too damaged to occupy. Photo: Malka Older/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Malka Older/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Houses buried by the earthquake-driven landslide in Bukit Tinggi, with Lake Maningjau in the background. Photo: Malka Older/Mercy Corps

About six months ago, after spending a week working with our Disaster Risk Reduction Program in West Sumatra, I joined some friends in a trip to Bukit Tinggi, a town in the mountains above Padang that's popular with tourists. From there we drove to Lake Maninjau, a spectacularly beautiful crater lake set in a ring of sharp cliffs. From atop one of the bluffs we shot photos of the blue water and the mountains reflected in it, and then we drove down a series of hairpin curves to the town of Maninjau, filled with the quaint, traditional Padang houses.

Today I returned to Maninjau by another route, and with a very different purpose: assessing the needs of the people affected by the earthquake there. Even before we got to the shore of the lake, I could see the difference. The majestic cliffs around the lake, mostly green with vegetation, were now streaked with brown and dun, showing places where landslides had torn away from their sides.

We stopped at a small camp that had been set up for the people whose houses were too badly damaged to live in. Under a makeshift shelter children sat and a woman slept. Another tent — with a few desultory chairs under it and an old blackboard — had been set up as the school where, they told us, 118 students were supposed to learn. The original elementary school, across the street, had been completely destroyed. By the shore of the lake was the rumah adat —the traditional meeting house for the community — ornately carved in red and brown wood with the traditional sweeping roofs. One of its sides had been destroyed.

“There are twenty-three families here now,” the woman in the small registration office told us. “But there are more who were here and have gone home to their damaged houses to try to clean up. If it rains, they will come back here.”

The problem with rain was not getting wet. The problem with rain was the danger of further landslides.

Another few kilometers along the road from the camp we saw the impact of the landslides. Huge rivers of dried mud plunged down the mountain and into the lake. The road had only just been cleared for passage, and in one place a brave driver held downed powerlines up for our car to pass under.

Some houses had been buried almost to the roof in mud. Others had been swept away completely, leaving only the roofing sheets floating in the shallows of the lake. We passed mud slide after mud slide and, after circumnavigating the lake, headed home to begin planning a distribution of tool kits and household kits for the area's displaced families to start rebuilding.