As It Happens·Q&A

Aid worker calls on Indonesia to 'build back safer' after earthquake kills hundreds

Indonesia needs to build stronger infrastructure after a relatively modest earthquake brought a devastating amount of damage to the country on Monday, aid worker Ade Soekadis told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

The quake was weaker than many in the country — but inadequate infrastructure made it extra deadly

Four people stand outside in the rain. A man holds a sheet over the head of a woman holding a small child.
Residents move to a safer place after a 3.9-magnitude aftershock in Cianjur, Indonesia on Wednesday following a deadly 5.6-magnitude earthquake that hit the area Monday. (Adek Barry/AFP/Getty Images)

Warning: This story contains an image of a dead body wrapped in a sheet.

Indonesia needs to build stronger infrastructure after a relatively modest earthquake brought a devastating amount of damage to the country on Monday, says an aid worker. 

More than 270 people were killed and some 2,000 injured by the quake that struck the island of Java. The death toll is expected to rise as teams search through the rubble. Already, it's the most deadly earthquake in Indonesia since 2018.

With a magnitude of 5.6, it was weaker than many of the earthquakes that have rattled the country, and would typically be expected to cause light damage. But experts told The Associated Press the quake's shallowness, coupled with inadequate infrastructure in the region, contributed to the severe damage.

Ade Soekadis, executive director of the non-governmental organization Mercy Corps Indonesia, has been in regular communication with aid workers on the ground in the hardest-hit areas. He spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal from the capital, Jakarta. Here's part of their conversation. 

Can you give us a sense of just how much damage this earthquake has done?

Given the magnitude of the earthquake … the number of casualties and the extent of damage is quite high. Currently, I think we're talking about tens of thousand people displaced, hundreds of people actually killed or missing.

And this is also because the earthquake [hit a] highly populated … region in Indonesia. So this is a bit different than an earthquake that hits usually in the outer islands, where populations are scarce. 

What does the destruction look like?

We've seen, actually, in the field, quite extensive damage with regard to infrastructure. Displaced people are still living in makeshift tents across the affected regions. There's not enough emergency shelter…. Those displaced people are afraid to go back to their homes because until now we are still actually feeling the aftershocks.

So coupled with the hilly terrain and the rainy season, it's actually exacerbated the risk of landslides as well as further damage to the houses and infrastructure.

An aerial view of houses along a street, many badly damaged, some with collapsed roofs, and some reduced to piles of rubble.
An aerial view shows damaged and collapsed houses in Cianjur on Wednesday. Aid workers and experts say the homes and buildings in the area were not built withstand the impact of earthquakes. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

 How are the local hospitals dealing with the influx?

[The hospitals] actually built makeshift tents in their yards. Even that is not enough. Because of the overcrowded ... health-care system, patients need to be transported 30 [or] 40 kilometres away in order to get treatment.

What are your teams telling you about what they're seeing?

They've got quite a lot of relief that's going into the area from governments, from private sectors, as well as from NGOs. But because of the location and also the remoteness of several villages, the aid and relief are not properly and evenly distributed. There's some pockets within the region, especially the remote ones, [that] are still not getting adequate relief and aid and assistance.

Some of the roads are still being blocked by landslides. And also because of the infrastructure and also the rainy season, it is quite difficult to transport heavy machinery in order to remove the roadblocks.

More than a dozen people, many of them children, huddled in a makeshift open-air tent made from wooden poles, tarps, blankets and bedsheets.
Many displaced Indonesians are staying in temporary, makeshift tent shelters. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

We know that a large number of the victims were children, schoolchildren. There's a lot of criticism about the buildings themselves. Can you tell me a little bit about that, and the concerns about schools in particular?

One of the biggest issues currently in Indonesia right now — not only school, but also in general, I think — [are] buildings. Our residences or schools or health-care facilities or public facilities are not earthquake-proof. So I think this is something that needs to be done moving forward in order to minimize the casualties for [people] living in this very high-risk area for earthquakes.

Why were so many of the victims children?

The earthquakes striked [in] early afternoon. And usually during the day, their parents, especially the father, is actually away to work.

And many of them were at boarding schools or, you know, supplementary schools, as I understand it.

Yes, some of them actually go to a boarding school in the area. And this is where pupils actually live and board within the school.

About a dozen people stand outside. At the forefront, a man in a T-shirt wraps his arms around a crying woman in a veil.
Relatives cry during the funeral of 48-year-old victim Husein, who was killed while building a house, at a village near Cianjur on November 22, following the earthquake. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

You mentioned some of the challenges of getting aid to people who need it. There's been some criticism from some people towards the government saying the government isn't moving quickly enough. What are your biggest concerns now in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake?

The biggest issue right now is to really map out the un-met needs across the region. I think until now, we're still actually assessing the damage and the casualties because of the earthquake. The numbers are going to go north, for sure.

I think the government is trying really hard in terms of moving logistics quickly. They actually mobilized … heavy machinery to remove roadblocks. But I think because … some of the areas [are] very hilly and very, very far from main roads, we still have some difficulty in reaching those hazardous areas.

That is why it is important to get everybody on board — not only the government, but also mobilize the NGOs, civil society and private sector in order to make sure we cover all those affected areas as quickly as possible.

There's still many missing and unaccounted people who are unaccounted for. What is the latest on the search and rescue? How long can they continue?

Our local partners [are] also part of the search and rescue teams over there. They're searching the debris and landslides to try to actually recover some of the potential survivors there.

As I said before, this is rainy season. So some of their efforts are still being hampered by heavy rains. But we think that within the next couple of days, we would be able to remove some of the roadblocks as well as have debris in order to quickly recover some of the potential survivors.

So we're talking about two or three days moving forward.

A man is pictured from behind, walking past crumbled houses, carrying small body wrapped in a white sheet.
A villager carries the body of his dead son in Cianjur on Tuesday. Many of the more than 270 people killed in the earthquake were children. (Adita Aji/AFP/Getty Images)

When you look forward into the future once these initial days are past when we talk about rebuilding, particularly the schools — I believe Save the Children said at least 80 schools were damaged — what are the conversations happening around that? What is the government saying about rebuilding schools so that they are safer?

I think it is important to start thinking about it. As you mentioned before, I think we should make sure that we build back better, build back safer.

Why haven't they built earthquake-proof schools before?

This is the $1-million question.

It is actually quite a difficult question to answer, to be honest with you. But I have a feeling that unless there's something [that] bad happens, it's very, very difficult to change the habits and practice of government in terms of building codes.

But I think this is a very, very, very hard learning for the government. I think they need to wake up and make sure, moving forward, not only that they build back better in this region … but also try to identify hotspots for earthquakes and do something about it with regard to the safety of buildings and constriction.


With files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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