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With warning drums and river clean-ups, Indonesian women head off disasters

Women often suffer worst when floods or earthquakes hit - but given the right resources, they are well-placed to protect their communities

29 April 2018

By Michael Taylor

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia - Whenever heavy rains come at night in her neighbourhood in the ancient Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, schoolteacher Muryani remembers the worst floods she experienced, almost 35 years ago.

Sleeping with her mother and two young siblings in a bamboo hut to guard a farmer's goats from thieves, Muryani feared for their lives as flash floods burst through the door.

"Suddenly the water was so high ... it came very fast," she said. "I was so worried about my mother, who was already quite old. I was afraid we would drown."

Muryani, 44, who goes by one name only, still lives in the same area, now a small settlement of about 300 residents called Pedak Baru which sits by a river close to Mount Merapi volcano.

As floods have become more frequent over the last five years, Muryani and 25 other local women have teamed up with the YAKKUM Emergency Unit, a project that runs activities to help women protect their communities from disasters in Central Java and Yogyakarta.

Located along the Pacific Rim of Fire, Indonesia has more than 17,000 islands, and faces many natural threats, including earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.

The effects of climate change, such as worsening floods and drought, present further risks.

The Indonesian government spends an estimated $300 million-$500 million annually on building back after disasters, according to World Bank resilience officials.

While the Southeast Asian nation has reduced poverty over the last 20 years, many hover just above the poverty line and can easily be pushed back under it by a disaster.

But women can play a crucial role in minimising the risks for their families and neighbours, experts say.

For Muryani and her family, regular floods have often destroyed their possessions and furniture - which she cannot afford to replace - and forced her two children to miss school.

But the disaster training she has received is helping.

"It gives us an awareness for what to do when flooding happens and how to prepare," she said.

Policy change

Indonesia has experienced an average of 290 significant natural disasters annually over the past 30 years, according to the World Bank officials.

They include the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed about 167,000 Indonesians. After that shock, Jakarta reformed its institutions, laws and policies to better manage disaster risk.

The government introduced a disaster management bill in 2007 that shifted the emphasis from merely responding to disasters towards trying to stop them happening and curbing their impact.

The new approach led to the strengthening of Indonesia's disaster management agency, with representatives and branches put in place across districts.

The disaster agency now encourages civil society groups like YAKKUM to involve women more in efforts to build resilience.

Despite the huge progress made in recent years, more work is needed, and a larger number of government departments should include disaster risk reduction in their projects, especially at the local level, said Arghya Sinha Roy of the ADB in Manila.

"Every disaster is not on a nationwide scale - it can be a localised district or village-level disaster," he added.

Women left behind

Often marrying early, Indonesian women's traditional role in running the household means they are sometimes forgotten when a community draws up plans to deal with disasters.

This can lead to them being left behind at home during evacuations, or being unaware of safety procedures.

"When you look back at the 2004 tsunami, most of the casualties are women," said Irina Rafliana, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

And women who survive a major catastrophe are often the ones responsible for getting their families back on their feet in tough circumstances, she added.

In Indonesia, as in many Asian countries, women often take care of the family and its finances, meaning they are best placed to suggest ways of protecting lives, property and incomes, experts said.

When disasters happen, women tend to quickly grasp the importance of saving key documents, for example. And because women spend more time in their neighbourhoods, they can pinpoint high-risk areas and influence their peers.

"If you compare Indonesia with other countries in Southeast Asia, the role of women ... in disaster risk reduction is among the strongest," said Rafliana.

Floods and volcanoes

Pedak Baru faces twin threats of flooding and damage to infrastructure caused by eruptions from nearby Mount Merapi.

The only access to the settlement is via a narrow, potholed road, while many of its two-storey houses are in a state of disrepair due to regular inundations.

Things are changing, however, especially since YAKKUM began working with women in the community three years ago.

Pedak Baru's women first mapped out their neighbourhood to identify the risks, and now regularly collect rubbish from the river, recycling plastic waste for money.

The women are trained in evacuation procedures and first aid, and help fill and place sandbags along the river's embankment when waters rise.

Despite scant funding, they have made life-buoys from rope and tyres, and early-warning drums from bamboo.

Signposts on walls point out escape routes and an evacuation point positioned on higher ground.

The women also hold regular talks with the local branch of the Indonesian disaster agency, and are campaigning for the permanent reinforcement of their river embankment.

Pedak Baru resident Farida Estiningrum, 39, said the scheme had been useful in helping young people too.

"We have even trained the children on how to save themselves when the flood comes to the houses," she said. "We are prepared for everything."

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