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Slimy business; Java’s unstoppable mudflow

FARMERS tilling the fields of Java, the world’s most populous island, have long known that the gods give and they take away. Java’s volcanic soil is astonishingly fertile but, like the rest of Indonesia, alarmingly prone to seismic activity. An earthquake that struck the eastern island of Sumbawa on November 25th killed at least three people.

But the calamity that has befouled a swathe of semi-industrial farmland in east Java was, by most accounts, a man-made mess. In May last year Lapindo Brantas, an energy company, was drilling for natural gas when it accidentally opened a fissure in the ground. Torrents of hot, toxic mud began to flow. It has been flowing ever since, inundating 11 villages and swamping schools, factories, farms and roads in a 2.5 square mile (6.5 square km) zone. A network of earthen dams and levees holds back a lake of oily grey muck. Some is being pumped into a river and out to sea, despite the risk of contamination from heavy metals and chemicals in the mud.

Efforts to staunch the flow have ranged from the ambitious to the ludicrous. Hundreds of concrete balls linked by steel cables were air-dropped into the hole, to no good effect. A group of Javanese mystics, offered a cash reward by local authorities to plug the abyss using supernatural powers, fared no better. Various experts have offered advice on how to divert or disrupt the volcano, which has spewed out an estimated 1 billion cubic feet (28m cubic metres) of mud. Japanese scientists have proposed building a 130-foot (40-metre) dam, reasoning that the weight of the exposed mud, which hardens as it dries, would eventually stem the flow. Nobody knows if or when it would stop of its own accord.

A hand-painted banner across an abandoned strip of toll-road offers its own succinct formula: “Lapindo + Government = Madness”. Many are angry at the government’s sluggish response to the disaster, which has displaced some 16,000 people. Hundreds are still living in a makeshift camp. The local economy has collapsed. Factories and farms have been inundated, and the vital toll-road to the port of Surabaya closed. To ease the appalling traffic a military airport in Malang, a town to the south, has opened to civilian flights.

Apportioning blame for the disaster has been tricky. Lapindo argued the mudflow was caused by an earthquake that struck central Java two days earlier, a theory pooh-poohed by most geologists. After much dithering, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s president, ordered the company to pay $412m to the afflicted. But inundated villagers get just 20% now, and the rest within two years.

Mr Yudhoyono may be influenced by Lapindo’s majority shareholder, the diversified family-owned Bakrie Group. At the time of the disaster, its patriarch, Aburizal Bakrie, was the economics supremo in Mr Yudhoyono’s cabinet, having backed his presidential campaign in 2004. Mr Bakrie described the mudflow as a natural disaster that “nothing can prevent”. Perhaps to escape liability, his group tried to sell Lapindo to obscure offshore buyers. But Indonesian regulators blocked the sale. Mr Bakrie has since moved, with no intended irony, to the post of co-ordinating minister for public welfare.

© The Economist

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