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Saving lives with disaster preparedness

Villagers in the earthquake-prone islands off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, were trained to respond to earthquakes, helping prevent the loss of life in the 2007 earthquake.

Identity and cultural diversity, Interdependence and globalisation, Social justice and human rights

School children in Nias, Indonesia, are taught to get under tables and cover their heads after an earthquake.

School children in Nias, Indonesia, are taught to get under tables and cover their heads after an earthquake. Photo © SurfAid

Earthquakes in Indonesian islands

Location of Sumatra earthquake 2005. AusAIDCovered in dense tropical jungle, the islands of Nias and the Mentawai chain are located off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Strong currents and rough seas have isolated the islands and people have developed unique cultures connected to the forest. The islands are about 10 hours by boat from Sumatra, and people have limited access to healthcare and suffer malnutrition, malaria and other treatable diseases. As the islands are situated alongside the boundary of four tectonic plates (Indian, Australian, Sunda and Burma), earthquakes on these islands are common.

Introduction to SurfAid’s E-Prep program

Keen surfers discovered the waves off Nias and Mentawai in the 1990s. Troubled by the inequity of lifestyles, one of them, Dr Jenkins, established SurfAid International to tackle health issues such as malaria, malnutrition, respiratory infection and diarrhoea.

In 2006, SurfAid started its Emergency Preparedness Program (E-Prep), Sianga Bencana, a three-year, $3.15 million community-based program sponsored by Australian Aid, the Australian Government’s overseas aid program. SurfAid is working in partnership with 54 communities in the region – 32 villages in Nias and 22 isolated hamlets in the Mentawai – to improve basic community knowledge of natural disasters.

Siap siaga – We are prepared

Villagers in Nias, Indonesia, practise emergency evacuation, moving away from falling building debris. Village elders in Nias, Indonesia, learn about being prepared for earthquakes through drawings and discussion.Around 1,500 community volunteers were trained to react quickly and decisively in the face of earthquakes, potential tsunamis and other identified disasters such as floods, landslides and epidemics. They have learnt how to treat the wounded, evacuate people with injuries and employ basic search and rescue techniques.

Key community members were trained to respond quickly and effectively in an emergency.From school children to elders, many villagers have practised procedures for high ground evacuation. A village gong system is used to sound the alarm. People know to take cover and put out their cooking fires while waiting for the signal to evacuate. Evacuation routes have been indentified, paths and bridges improved, and evacuation sites have been stocked with food and temporary housing.

‘We know we’ve got to be ready to help ourselves because who knows when help could arrive here,’ said Moses, the head of Katurai Village. ‘So our community is ready, we have enough food to live for two months if something big happens.’

The emphasis has been on using available resources. For example, communities learn how to make stretchers from bamboo and sarongs, and carry people with disabilities using chairs or doors.

Saving lives

Most buildings were destroyed in the 2007 earthquake on the Mentawai Islands, but emergency preparation meant everyone was evacuated safely.In 2007 two major earthquakes struck the Mentawai. Villagers ran up the hills, fearing a tsunami. It was raining and they were in the mud and darkness, without shelter. Schools, offices and places of worship and nearly 4,000 houses were destroyed.

‘If the earthquake is longer than 50 seconds there is also the chance of a tsunami so the people know they need to run to higher ground along evacuation routes that they have prepared,’ said Mona Lisa, one of SurfAid’s Community Facilitators. ‘Being prepared means saving lives.’

‘Even though we lost our homes, we thank SurfAid because nobody lost their life,’ said Budi, head of the West Silabu sub-district, near Macaronis, where more than 90% of the houses were destroyed or made uninhabitable.

SurfAid worked in partnership with the Indonesian Red Cross, and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) and UNICEF.

SurfAid raised money to charter boats to deliver emergency relief. Villagers were provided with:

  • building kits (shovel, hoe, pliers, sharpening stone, saw, hammer, axe, file, nail puller, crowbar, machete, assorted nails, bucket and wire)
  • shelter kits (4 x 6 m and 5 x 8 m tarpaulins, plastic mat, and nylon rope)
  • hygiene kits consisting of a bucket, washing brush, plastic soap case, soap (2 bars), toothbrush (5), comb (2), small towel (5), water dipper and mirror.

Aftershocks of 5 to 6 on the Richter scale continued for months. Villagers slept in the hills in temporary shelters to avoid evacuation.

SurfAid’s E-Prep program has given people hope, confidence and practical skills to help them cope with the inevitable future earthquakes.


SurfAid International 

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School children in Nias, Indonesia, are taught to get under tables and cover their heads after an earthquake.
Photo © SurfAid
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School children in Nias, Indonesia, are taught to get under tables and cover their heads after an earthquake. Photo © SurfAid