Touring the Sidoarjo Mudflow Site

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Last year, I went out and toured the Lapindo mudflow in Sidoarjo, East Java.  However, I only ever ended up writing this one blog post about it, which was pretty slack.  I knew I had started writing a proper feature story, but in all the chaos of being on the road and then going home to Oz and moving to the US, I forgot to finish it and get it published.  I was looking for something else on my computer today, and I found the rough draft.  So it’s crazy out of date (written in May 2010), but still interesting I think… so here it is, on the blog. I figured it was better to post it here than to not have it published at all… It’s pretty rough sorry and not exactly complete. (PS. I have a slideshow of pics from the Sidoarjo site here).

Touring Lusi

Indonesian politicians have suggested the Lapindo mudflow disaster site could be turned into an ecological tourism attraction.  But does it really have any potential? By Ashlee Betteridge


It only takes a few moments after arriving in Porong to sense that something is not right.  The air leaves a metallic tinge on your tongue.  It permeates the cells in one’s nasal cavities with an industrial chemical-laced bite.  The scant breeze is burdened with dust particles that simply smell unhealthy.  They cling to your clothes, your hair, your skin.

Behind huge dirt embankments, adorned sporadically with rickety bamboo staircases and timid tufts of grass, lies a sea of hot mud.  This is the Sidoarjo mudflow, where an estimated 30,000 cubic metres of mud are expelled from the ground every day.

Following oil and gas exploration by PT Lapindo Brantas in May 2006, an eruption of gas occurred near the well and the mudflow began. However, the company has tried to apportion the blame for the disaster on the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake, which occurred some 250 kilometres away. Geologists blame the drilling, however Lapindo Brantas, which is partly owned by the company of Aburizal Bakrie – the country’s Minister for Welfare at the time of the incident – has not accepted blame.

The disaster has stumped the government.  The mud won’t stop and nobody knows when it will, so ideas to reboot the local economy have been far and few between.  Earlier this year (early 2010), shortly before the fourth anniversary of the disaster, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and members of the country’s House of Representatives suggested that the site be turned into a geological tourism attraction.  Opposition parties, including the Golkar Party (which is headed by Bakrie), quickly backed the plan.

PKS faction chairman Mustafa Kamal considered it “a move to change a disaster into a blessing” and said the idea could set “a world-class example on how Indonesia develops a beautiful tourism area from something scary.”

But even on a bright sunny day, it’s hard to imagine this site being a tourist drawcard.  The noxious smell is one thing, but there’s also the sweltering temperature.  The mud itself emits heat and the area surrounding the disaster zone is a dustbowl.  Combine this with the unrelenting sun and lack of shade and ‘unpleasant’ is the first word that comes to mind.

At the top of the huge embankments holding back the mud, ojek, or motorcycle taxis, wait for disaster tourists under makeshift bamboo shelters.  The drivers sit and smoke nonchalantly while keeping their eyes fixed on the staircases, should any potential customers appear in the horizon.

Arrivals are greeted warmly but forcefully.  DVD jackets depicting the disaster are waved in faces and the ojek drivers skillfully shepherd people towards their motorcycles while engaging in idle banter.

Samsul Adidin

I agree to a ride around the site.  My ojek driver, Samsul Adidin, takes me off on the back of his bike, for a rather hefty price compared to a usual ojek tariff.  But who could rightly haggle when you are touring a disaster zone? We ride along the wide embankments and at different points, we stop to look at the destruction.

Four years after the disaster began, the height of the dammed mud has risen so much that only a few remnants of the inundated villages can be seen.  A factory roof with most of its tiles picked off by scavengers sticks out from the mud lake.  A tower from one of the tallest buildings in the area juts out at an angle.

Further around the track, some of the disintegrated walls of one village, where the mud was cleared by pumping it out into the Porong River, are visible again.  Locals have salvaged as many of the bricks and materials as possible to build new homes, leaving only the stumps of buildings behind.

Samsul lost his home in Jatirejo village to the mud and his family now live two kilometres away in a rental property.  His wife doesn’t want to live near the mud because she doesn’t like the smell and worries the gases could harm their two young children, aged six and two-and-a-half.

“She also doesn’t like to see this and remember every day what happened,” Samsul says, gesturing towards an area of thick mud swamp.  “It’s too hot here as well.”

The temperature is overbearing.  Dead trees are naked of green and former farmlands lie barren and dusty.

“How do you work with the heat?” I ask Samsul.

“It’s just normal for me now,” he replies with a smile.

Samsul has been taking ‘tourists’ around the mudflow site since 2006, after the factory where he worked was inundated by mud and he was left without a job or home.

Even without promotion from government as a tourist attraction, the mudflow has consistently pulled a steady flow of curious visitors.

In the early days, when interest in the phenomenon was at its peak, Samsul estimated some 3,000 people arrived at the mudflow site every day.

Now, on a regular day, he will see around 25 people at his ojek stand.  During holiday season, there may be as many as 50.  The visitors are both domestic and international, with some working in the government and resources fields and others just curious to see the disaster for themselves.

“I think, around the whole mud area, there is maybe 100 to 300 visitors a day now,” he said. “Some of the ojek drivers have gone and found other work because there is not enough here.  Not all of the visitors take a tour, some just come up here and look and then leave, so then we don’t make money.”

As we continue our tour, we pass by another dilapidated and dusty village.  Some people have moved back into the damaged houses after some of the mud has been pumped away.

“Their children get sick in the chest,” Samsul says as we pass on the bike. “Always coughing coughing. That is why I would not bring my children back here.”

Along the former Porong Highway, which was severed by the mudflow, internally displaced persons who have not received complete compensation for the loss of their homes have built single room shacks out of bamboo and scraps.  Kids play on the road on bikes, next to giant pipes and machinery designed to push some of the unstoppable mud into the Porong River and out to sea.

With the crater far in the distance, the mud almost looks scenic at some points. Water pools on top of the muck during the wet season and on a sunny day it reflects the blue sky like a lake.  However, even though Samsul has made his living out of visitors to the mudflow site for nearly four years, he scoffs at any idea of the area becoming a tourist attraction.

“Maybe SBY could make it a tourist attraction if the mud stops flowing. But now it is too hot here and the atmosphere is just not nice,” Samsul said.

“When people come here to visit, they feel sad.  It’s not ‘happy happy’ here. The people who visit now are only interested in this mudflow problem.  They do not come for enjoyment.”

We head back to where we started, passing the browned Porong River, ruined in an attempt to find a solution for the seemingly endless mud.  In Porong town, spared so far from inundation but dusty and quiet, a family sits under the shade of a scrawny, solitary tree next to the railway tracks. Nobody else is around. Samsul says that most of the locals go in to Surabaya for work.

He points out some of the recent “bubbles” near the train station, where mud has started sprouting from new points.  Some of these new breakouts are right near the railway tracks, and some are on the jammed temporary highway bypass.  A new road is planned, but land acquisition problems are holding up its construction, and there are concerns that these new mud outbreaks could destroy current transport links, or even cause gas explosions.

Back at the ojek stand, the other drivers are still where we left them, smoking cigarettes on a bench under a small roof made with a campaign poster from Indonesia’s 2009 presidential election.  While the face of losing candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri looks down on them from above, the four men on the bench look intently at a group of domestic visitors taking photos of the mud.

“They don’t want ojeks,” one of the other drivers tells Samsul.  But the drivers keep their eye out, and if any of the visitors even glance sideways, they gesture invitingly with big smiles.

The only woman working on the embankment today is Herwati (who like many Indonesians only has one name).  Her home was inundated by mud twice.  After losing her house in Tejo village, she moved to Sering, which was then swamped by mud when an embankment broke.  She has worked selling DVDs of the disaster in multiple languages to visitors for three years.

“I lived in a contract (rental) house that was free for the first two years, but after those two years were up, that was it.  I received no other compensation and I have had to survive on my own,” Herwati said.

There are many vendors in the area selling DVDs and VCDs of the disaster, so business is tough.  On a usual day, Herwati only sells around two of the discs.

“It’s difficult (to earn a living here),” she said.  “The economic conditions here are not good. But we try our best.”

Herwati says she is worried that if the Lapindo mud is turned into a tourist attraction, the victims will be forgotten.

“For the local people here, we have lost our homes and some people are still waiting for compensation.  If this becomes a tourist site, people might forget the problems that we face,” she said.

“In a long time, if I bring my son back here, who is seven years old, he might not be able to see the humble place where he was born and what happened here.  My village will be gone and forgotten.”

“But God Willing, if more tourists came, it would be better for our economy and our life and perhaps more people would know about this situation.”

2 Responses to " Touring the Sidoarjo Mudflow Site "

  1. Budsby says:

    Really sad story. It’s not surprising the rich causing it came out unscathed not even a cent of compensations to those who were poor and now lost everything. Just hope the politicians are brave enough to punish all those responsible for the disaster. Natural? I doubt it according to the findings.