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Three months after devastating West Java quake, authorities redesign the area to prepare for future

CIANJUR, West Java: Standing on top of a steep slope overlooking a raging river, Nanang Sukmana gazed at the remnants of his earthquake-hit village. The sight gave the 52-year-old school teacher a sense of awe and disbelief.

More than 100 families used to call Cijedil Village home but that changed on Nov 21 last year when a 5.6 magnitude quake hit the regency of Cianjur. The tremor shook the ground so hard it triggered a massive landslide, burying the place Sukmana had known his whole life underneath tonnes of earth and debris.

“This is where my house used to be. Now, there is nothing left,” he told CNA, pointing to an empty plot of land with hardly any traces of his two-storey home.

Cijedil is among the dozens of villages in Cianjur impacted by the earthquake.

In total, 603 people were killed in the quake which also damaged more than 53,000 homes, schools, offices and places of worship, according to figures from the regency’s Disaster Mitigation Office. This includes 12,000 houses that were either completely levelled to the ground or too badly damaged to be considered safe to live in.

Earthquakes are common in Indonesia, an archipelago that straddles the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. However, it is rare for a quake with a magnitude of less than six – which scientists classified as “moderate” – to have such a devastating impact.

“Look at the quality of this cement mixture,” he continued as he picked up a chunk off of a damaged wall and crushed it into coarse dust with his hand.

Supartoyo, a senior researcher for Indonesia’s Vulcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Centre highlighted that some villages in Cianjur were so densely populated that houses were only connected by narrow labyrinthine alleyways. 

This, he said, was another factor why there were so many deaths for such a moderate earthquake. “The narrow alleyways hindered residents from making a quick escape to safety amid the chaos and devastation caused by the earthquake,” the researcher, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said.

Cianjur regent Herman Suherman admitted that the quake also caught government officials and policymakers by surprise.

“All this time, we focused our disaster mitigation efforts on Mount Gede (a volcano north of Cianjur) and South Cianjur which is prone to tsunamis. But God has other plans. (A quake) appeared on the Cugenang Fault Line, which according to scientists is a new discovery,” the regent told CNA.

This meant that building quake-resistant infrastructure came as an afterthought to everyone in Cianjur, including policymakers. Therefore, the earthquake not only devastated people’s houses but also destroyed bridges and damaged government offices.

Cianjur regent, Suherman said the government is also devising a campaign to raise awareness about the risk of another earthquake.

“With Cianjur proven to be quake-prone, we have to conduct a massive education campaign for adults and even children. We plan on having schools teach pupils what to do when an earthquake hits Cianjur, so that the people of Cianjur will be ready when a disaster strikes,” he said.

SPATIAL PLANNING UNDER REVIEW

Budi Rahayu Toyib, an assistant secretary for the Cianjur government said the regency is planning to ban houses and other structures from being built near the newly discovered fault line.

“We are revising our spatial planning law and making areas straddling the fault line red zones, which means there must not be any human activities there. People who are now living there will be relocated,” the senior Cianjur official told CNA, adding that the government is currently building permanent houses in other parts of the regency for the relocation plan.

“Those who agree (with the relocation) feel that it is time for a fresh start in a safer place. The people who disagree are the farmers. They have rice fields here and the relocation site is far away from here,” Umay, who goes by one name, told CNA.

The government promises that relocated residents will get to keep their properties. “They can only use the land to plant crop trees which will help stabilise the soil and not rice or corn as is the case today,” Cianjur assistant secretary Toyib said.

Cijedil resident Sukmana also had mixed feelings about relocating. On one hand, relocating would mean leaving the village where his family has lived for generations and a long commute to get to the elementary school where he teaches.

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