The Price of Lives: The Indonesian Tsunami

How much money represents the value of a human life?  In Indonesia this number rests around 69,000 US dollars.  This was clearly expressed on Friday September 28, 2018 when the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia was hit with an 18 foot tsunami with little to no warning.  

Indonesia is one of the most densely populated nations in the world with a population of 261 million people, the island of Sulawesi contains 17 million of that population.  The tsunami started when a coastal earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 hit the coast of Sulawesi. This massive wave has already killed 1200 people mainly affecting the city of Palu, however as many places have yet to be reached this toll could raise exponentially higher.  The wave also demolished thousands of buildings, forcing over 48,000 people to flee their homes. This humanitarian disaster will take weeks or months to begin to fix. However, as this is the first such disaster in this area, there is much that can be learned.

Oh wait.  This isn’t the first, not even one of a few.  

This is a recurring pattern and the Indonesian government could have done something about it.  In fact just fourteen years ago in 2004, Indonesians survived the third largest tsunami on record in the world.  After that disaster the US National Science Foundation funded the creation of a prototype of seafloor sensors, data-laden sound waves, and fiber optic cables that were supposed to give fair and comprehensive tsunami warnings.  However, due to conflicts over funding the 1 billion rupiah (69,000 US Dollar) project, the sensors never got past the prototype phase. Because of this, Indonesia’s current tsunami warning system consists of 22 buoys connected to sensors and a warning system sent via text message.  However, when the tsunami hit none of the 22 buoys worked and the cell towers were washed away before most people ever received any notice. “To me this is a tragedy for science, even more so a tragedy for the Indonesian people as the residents of Sulawesi are discovering right now,” said Louise Comfort, a University of Pittsburgh expert in disaster management who has led the U.S. side of the sensor project.


Photo of Palu post-tsunami, including flooded mosque (AP/Antara Foto Agency)

However, the Indonesian government is not completely at fault.  Lack of preparedness on the part of the Indonesian citizens also needs to be addressed when looking at this issue.  When the earthquake hit many were still milling around the shores of Palu unaware of what was to come as waves visibly moved toward the shore.  According to Gavin Sullivan, a Coventry University psychologist who works with the Indonesian Resilience Initiative on a disaster preparation project in the city of Bandung, “What Indonesian colleagues have commented upon is that people were confused about what to do with the alert information,” he adds that, “This points to the failing to do appropriate training and to develop trust so that people know exactly what to do when an alert is issued,”.

In conclusion, this horrible tragedy, although inevitable, could have done far less damage if certain measures and programs had been in place.  This event will hopefully be the call to action that the Indonesian government needs to put effective policies in place regarding tsunami preparedness.  Because, next time it can be different, and there is no question that there will be a next time.

AP/Antara Foto Agency. An Aerial View of the Baiturrahman Mosque Which Was Hit by a Tsunami. Palu, Indonesia.

Associated Press. “Why Indonesia Still Lacks an Adequate Tsunami Warning System.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 1 Oct. 2018,

“Indonesia Earthquake and Tsunami: How Warning System Failed the Victims.” BBC News, BBC, 1 Oct. 2018,

Irfan, Umair. “Why Indonesia’s Tsunami Was so Deadly.” Vox, Vox, 1 Oct. 2018,

Wibawa, Tasha, and Farid M Ibrahim. “Tsunami Early Detection Buoys Haven’t Worked for Six Years, Disaster Agency Says.” ABC News, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1 Oct. 2018,

Wilkinson, Bard. “Indonesia Accused of Mishandling Tsunami Warnings.” CNN, Cable News Network, 1 Oct. 2018,

Wright, Stephen. “Indonesia Hasn’t Used Tsunami Warning System Due to Cost.” Time, Time, 1 Oct. 2018,

Yedroudj, Latifa. “Indonesia Earthquake: What Makes Indonesia Prone to ENDLESS Earthquakes and Tsunamis.”,, 1 Oct. 2018,


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