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Broad reach for Java quake

A World Bank report says the damage is 'much greater than initially believed.'

By Tom McCawleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2006


A month after a devastating earthquake left some 5,800 dead and an estimated 1.5 million homeless in Indonesia, only a trickle of the necessary aid has come in, relief workers say, and now they are starting to worry about monsoonal rains, expected by September.

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After a survey of disaster zones by experts, the World Bank says the May 27 quake was "among the most costly natural disasters to hit the developing world in the past ten years." But aid groups say they are struggling to get the funding needed for relief operations.

Although the estimated death toll in last month's quake is a fraction of that of the December 2004 tsunami in Aceh, the quake struck in one of the world's most densely populated areas: the rice growing zone of Central Java. An estimated third of the 4.5 million people in the valleys and hills nearby are homeless because of the quake, three times the number left homeless by the tsunami.

"The impact from this earthquake is much greater than initially believed," the World Bank said in a report this month after an assessment by dozens of specialists. The World Bank claims that at $3.1 billion, the damage put the May 27 quake ahead of massive earthquakes in Pakistan (this year) and Gujarat, India (2001) in terms of cost of damage.

Relief organizations are warning that contributions from donors are much less than hoped for. On June 1, the UN appealed for $103 million for a six-month emergency relief and recovery plan, but so far just over $21 million has been pledged.

This month, six international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Oxfam, CARE, Islamic Relief, and World Vision warned it would be a struggle to house the homeless before the monsoon rains.

"We're doing everything we can, but if relief operations don't get support needed to help all the survivors soon, things will get worse," said Johan Kieft, an emergency response worker with the local unit of the Atlanta-based CARE. Relief organizations such as CARE warn that the donor shortfall means that they don't have enough essential supplies such as tarpaulins for tents.

Aid workers blame the lackluster response from donors partly on the subdued government reaction to the disaster. Critics claim that although the local government responded quickly, its officials haven't been trained in disaster assessment.

"It's like they're using hammers instead of a saw to clear a fallen tree in the road," says sociologist Imam Prasodjo, director of the Nurani Dunia foundation, an Indonesian NGO. "They might be working very hard, but they're using the wrong tools."

Mr. Imam blames the national disaster management agency BAKORNAS, which he says appoints responsibility to a chain of government officials stretching from village chief to governor to assess damage after disasters. "Village heads are trying to do civil engineers' jobs!" he says. Ultimately, Imam claims the central government is responsible for BAKORNAS.

Other aid workers say perceived failures in the reconstruction after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh has cooled donor's enthusiasm for the Central Java earthquake. "In the shadow of the tsunami the [international] NGOs seemed to let down everyone," says Keith Bolshaw, a program officer with Islamic Relief in Yogyakarta who worked as a volunteer in Aceh. "But the whole world didn't see how difficult it was. Now we have to treat this [Central Java] disaster on its own."