Mud flood threatens Java residents
By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Sidaorjo
Many villagers ran to escape the encroaching hot mud
Thousands of people on the Indonesian island of Java have been forced from their homes by tonnes of hot mud and gas.
The sludge, which has been spewing out of the ground for more than two months, is the result of a crack in a gas drilling project near Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya.
In a sign of growing international concern over the disaster, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the affected area of Sidoarjo last week.
But despite attempts by government officials and the company involved, so far nothing has managed to contain the flow.
The mud now covers around 20 square kilometres. Climb up a bank of earth at the outskirts of Shiring village and you see it – a lake of mud stretching for kilometre after kilometre.
A white plume of gas marks the spot where it all started; a crack in the earth spewing out steaming sludge.
You can count the rooftops floating in the mud – marking out factories and schools. And you can imagine the things you cannot see – the homes, the rice paddies, the furniture, the toys: whole lives buried; their owners gone, forced to run for higher ground.
‘We just ran’
A few kilometres away is what one local person described as a “people market”. It is a newly-built market place, not yet filled with shops.
Residents have been living in temporary shelters
Instead, most of the 9,000 people who have been displaced by the mud have ended up here, two families to one shop space. Motorbikes, clothes and plastic buckets mark the entrance to these new homes – a handful of belongings saved from the sludge.
“We were all scared,” Suliati said, as she squatted outside one shop entrance, cooking up a dinner of fried eggs.
“The mud came up to our chest, we didn’t have time to save anything from the house, we just ran to save our lives.”
Behind her, her mother nodded agreement.
“Now we have to help each other just to survive,” she said. “Some people borrow things from us, we borrow other things from them. We have food, but we’ve lost everything else – our homes, our jobs. It’s a hard time for us.”
The gas company running the operation in Sidaorjo, Lapindo Brantas, has been criticised for risking the safety of local people, and allegations of corruption have soured the air.
A criminal investigation has begun into several senior executives from Lapindo and one of their sub-contractors, but the company’s lawyer, Masieyh Sutiono, said the company had done nothing wrong.
Instead, he said, the company was acting responsibly towards local people by offering food and compensation to those affected by the mud, while everyone waited for the results of the police investigation.
Lapindo has been trying to stem the flow of mud, but so far nothing has worked. The government, meanwhile, is anxious to keep the sludge away from any other residential areas and is putting its faith into a series of dams meant to contain the growing lake.
Trucks carrying mounds of earth to build these new barriers rumble up and down the main highway every couple of minutes, but the dams have not always proved effective.
Earlier this month, a barrier around the village of Shiring burst, causing a second wave of refugees. Many of those living close to the affected area have now moved out, and many of those that remain are thinking about it.
Mrs Jhoni watches the trucks come and go from the front of her button and bead shop on the main highway. She is reluctant to leave her customers, and her shop – which is raised a little way above the main road – will give her some protection.
Dams are being built to hold back the mud
But she says she is playing a “wait and see” game and is ready to run whenever things take a turn for the worse.
Officials are working against the clock.
The rainy season is due to begin in two months time, and plans to build a stronger, concrete barrier to cope with it have not convinced many of the experts brought in to find a solution. Heavy rainfall, they say, could break through the barrier in a matter of hours.
Pressure from environmentalists has so far prevented them from using the river to divert tonnes of sludge into the Java Sea.
But with pressure also growing from the local population to find a solution, and with the volume of mud increasing and the rainy season approaching, everyone in Sidoarjo is having to think hard about who will pay the cost of fixing the problem.