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Indonesian province still faces huge post-disaster challenges

In this Oct. 26, 2018 file photo, a submerged mosque is seen on a beach in Palu, the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, following an earthquake-tsunami disaster on Sept. 28. (Kyodo)

PALU, Indonesia (Kyodo) -- A year ago, Syamsu Alam lost almost all his possessions after a powerful earthquake, followed by tsunami waves and a phenomenon known as soil liquefaction, hit Indonesia's Sulawesi Island and claimed over 4,000 lives.

Like many others, he was left with nothing but the clothes on his back. The 40-year-old fisherman, however, quickly pulled himself together and began to rebuild his life, returning to the sea only a couple months after the multiple disaster.

With some carpentry materials donated to fisherman by a media conglomerate, Syamsu and his neighbors in West Mamboro, a subdistrict in the Central Sulawesi provincial capital of Palu, returned home to their houses flattened by the giant temblor and tsunamis.

Building his wooden house little by little, depending on money earned from fishing, the completed structure stood on his land a month later. He enjoys his life now -- working again at sea, drying the fish he nets and selling them to the market.

There is a problem, however.

Syamsu's house is located inside the red zone, tentatively designated by the local government, following months of surveys by some ministries and institutions, as well as the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Building inside the zone is prohibited.

Fisherfolk like Syamsu "insist on living where their previous houses stood...in the red zone, where (permanent) houses can no longer be built," Central Sulawesi Gov. Longki Djanggola lamented in an interview.

While the problem has created headaches for local authorities, it impossible for them to force fishermen to live away from the sea, he added.

Temporary houses provided by the government are located on a higher, hilly ground, about 4 kilometers from the coast, which many fisherfolk consider too far away.

"We need to be close to the sea because we use seawater to wash and dry our fish. Cleaning them with freshwater decreases their quality," he said.

Syamsu's 44-year-old neighbor Syamsuddin has a similar view, saying, "You want to put a seaman on the mountain? That's ridiculous."

Fishing is in his blood, he said in dismissing the local government's offer to teach skills needed to pursue alternate ways to earn a living.

Local authorities have repeatedly visited residents refusing to leave the danger zone, offering the temporary accommodations until permanent housing can be arranged, hopefully within two years.

"The Palu mayoralty authorities have visited us at least 10 times in the past one year, persuading us to relocate," Syamsuddin said.

But like cases in other parts of Indonesia hit by natural disasters, where local governments have tolerated stubborn residents and eased some rules, it stopped there.

Mitigation efforts are neglected because the local government faces a dilemma -- unable to cut residents from their livelihoods.

"Finally, they agreed that for the time being, we are allowed to build houses here as long as they are not permanent ones," he added.

And Syamsu was pretty sure that within two years, he will be finally able to build a permanent house inside the danger zone, "like the Acehnese."

He was referring to fishermen in the Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh, devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, who returned to live in the danger zone after two years.

Another hurdle in rehabilitating and reconstructing disaster-affected areas, according to Djanggola, is the central government's lack of understanding of the local people's character.

Suprayoga Hadi, primary planner at the National Development Planning Agency, said that to speed up the building of permanent houses in the province, local residents are being expected to build them by themselves with materials provided by the government.

Suprayoga, who directly deals with drawing a master plan for the province's rehabilitation and reconstruction, said the government hopes for a repeat of the successful cases of Yogyakarta Province, in central Java, which recovered from a 2006 quake and a 2010 volcanic eruption largely through self-help efforts.

"The problem is that people from outside Java don't have the spirit of 'gotong royong' (community-based togetherness) like Javanese. They are more selfish, thinking only of themselves and not caring about others, even those less fortunate than they are," he said.

Under such a spirit, he said, Yogyakartans could build 260,000 permanent houses by their own hands within only two years, compared with Acehnese who took five years to build only 80,000 houses.

Like Acehnese, Sulawesi people prefer to wait for the government to build their houses for them, he said, expressing pessimism that the reconstruction process in Central Sulawesi will be quick.

But Djanggola defended his people, saying each ethnicity has its own character and "obedient Javanese" cannot be compared with "temperamental Sulawesi people."

"We shall not generalize that the pattern in Yogyakarta must be accepted here, because the characters of people are different," the governor said.

The magnitude 7.5 earthquake hit Central Sulawesi, particularly Palu, the nearby coastal town of Donggala, and Sigi and Parigi Moutong regencies, on Sept. 28 last year.

The death toll stands at 4,140, with 705 others missing and presumed dead. Most fatalities were caused by three tsunami waves as high as 11.3 meters that struck Palu, with seawater reaching up to 468 meters inland.

Many deaths from the liquefaction were reported in Palu's districts of Petobo and Balaroa and in the village of Jono Oge in Sigi Regency, with some 4,000 houses swallowed up by the ground.

The province also suffered losses estimated at 24.16 trillion rupiah (about $1.7 billion), with almost 173,000 people displaced.

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