My trip to Indonesia wasn't just to escape the state-of-war-and-siege that had been declared in the centre of Sydney for APEC, but also to work on a couple of my other research projects. Nevertheless, I had time to do a bit of disaster tourism, visiting the poisonous mud volcano that was created in Sidoarjo, just south of Surabaya airport.
I was running late for the Panji festival because my plane from Jakarta to Surabaya had been cancelled, as had all the planes to Surabaya that morning. I feared another airport disaster, but it turned out that they just decided to close down Surabaya airport, the busiest hub to Eastern Indonesia, because the President was visiting! And they wonder why Indonesia has problems with national productivity (while I was in Jakarta Kompas had a great expose on this kind of self-important overkill that preoccupies Indonesian public officials. One of their journalists got hold of the—illegal—price-lists that local police stations produce for those who want to hold motorcades. You too can stuff up the traffic, for a price).
Anyway, despite being 4 hours late, I couldn't resist stopping off on the road to Malang to see the Lapindo disaster. For those not familiar with this, just over a year ago employees of the company Lapindo were doing exploratory drilling when they set off a huge eruption of poisonous mud. There are various accounts of how this occurred. Mr Bakrie, one of the owners of Lapindo, but also a government minister, claims it is entirely natural, and he continues in his post. Others more expert claim that it is because the drillers did not follow procedures—basically they cut corners to save time and money by not using proper casings on the drills. Whatever the cause, the mud continues to flood out. It has destroyed a major highway, ruined factories and other forms of livelihood, and most importantly wiped out the houses of between 12,000 and 13,000 people. The mud is still hot, and the sulphurous smell is horrendous. A number of people have already died in attempts to stop the flow (including the dropping of large concrete balls down the main source).
The victims of the disaster show sightseers around. For Rp20,000 you can get a bike ride up to the central lake, and other enterprising people have made DVDs of the event, including the related explosion of a Pertamina gasline in November 2006. The people in the area claim to have received small amounts of payment from Lapindo for six months, but so far have not received any real compensation, and are reliant on government handouts. Predictions are that the eruption is creating a huge vacuum under the mud lake, and that the whole area could collapse.