“The air here in Palu smells like rotting corpses”: on an Indonesian city decimated by an earthquake

The remains of a road after an earthquake-tsunami hit Palu, Indonesia, in September 2018. Image: Getty.

I’ve been visiting the city of Palu in Central Sulawesi, a province in Indonesia, for the past 38 years as part of my anthropological fieldwork. So it was particularly harrowing for me to read about the 7.7 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that decimated the city on 28 September.

The full scope of the devastation hasn’t come into focus, but thousands have been displaced, died or gone missing.

What we do know is that it will take years for Palu, the region’s capital city, to recover and rebuild. But while the devastation might be most visible in Palu, the province’s rural areas could ultimately end up suffering the most.

The hub of Sulawesi

Indonesia, a country made up of 13,000 islands populated by 263m people, has over 300 different ethnic groups in 34 provinces.

Sulawesi Island, once known as the Celebes, has 18m residents spread over six provinces in an area that’s roughly the size of Florida.

Sulawesi has six provinces, one of which is Central Sulawesi, where Palu is located. Image: Wikimedia Commons/creative commons.

Because of its unique shape – it looks like a lopsided spider with thin tendrils shooting off in various directions – travel to various parts of the island can be difficult, and many regions are isolated.

When I first arrived in Palu in 1980, it was a quaint city of only 30,000 people. White picket fences surrounded residents’ homes, and colonial-era architecture lined the main thoroughfares. Situated on the shimmering, emerald-colored waters of Palu Bay, the city was flanked by a U-shaped curve of steep mountains. It was stunning.

As I searched for a field site, it became quickly apparent that Palu was one of the few cities in the region with paved roads, running water and electricity. Much of this development had occurred since the federal government designated Palu the administrative center for a newly created province of Central Sulawesi in 1978. Using a World Bank loan, the federal government was able to fund the construction of roads and government buildings, while expanding the city’s electrical and communication grids.

I eventually decided to focus my anthropological research on the Lauje, one of Central Sulawesi’s 32 ethnic groups. The Lauje live in woven bamboo houses deep in the mountains above Tinombo, a region seven hours from Palu by car. For the next two years, I lived in one of these houses studying the Lauje language and conducting fieldwork.

During that period, I only made three or four forays into “modern” Palu. But even back then, it was clear that the city played a vital role in the day-to-day life of the region’s remote villages.

The Palu administrators decided where clinics and schools would be built and how they would be funded and staffed. They helped build and maintain the vital roads and bridges that coastal elites used to access the lucrative ebony, bamboo, cloves, coffee and chocolate farmed by upland peasants.

Steady – but fragile – growth

Over the years, I’ve watched Palu grow. What was once a sleepy little administrative capital where it seemed like everyone knew one another had become, by 2016, a bustling city of 375,000 residents with palatial mansions, gridlocked traffic, rock concerts and shopping malls.

As Central Sulawesi’s capital city, Palu serves not only its residents, but those throughout the province.

It’s where middle-class people living in more rural areas send their kids to university, where they travel to buy computers or automobiles and where they go for serious medical procedures. It’s where administrators from far-flung counties go to attend training workshops, file government reports or request funding for local projects.

While Palu became more prosperous during the 31-year rule of former President Suharto, most of the Lauje and the province’s other ethnic communities continued to live in poverty, surviving off subsistence farming.


Change came when President Suharto left office in 1998 and a new democratic government took power. For decades, Suharto’s family had unfairly controlled the prices of lucrative crops such as coffee, cloves and chocolate, pocketing government-imposed costs and fees for themselves.

Now, with fairer costs and prices in place, farmers can profit more from their labor – and can then pay for the books and uniforms required to send their children to middle and high schools.

Meanwhile, more equitable distribution of federal resources funded new schools and health clinics in rural regions. The Palu government also built motorcycle trails that bypassed the rivers, allowing farmers to more easily transport their produce to markets.

In 2017, Central Sulawesi’s economy grew at a rate of 7.14 per cent. Much of that has taken place in Palu, but the province’s other regions have slowly been inching out of poverty, too.

Life on pause

This fragile economic growth has now been completely upended; the region’s infrastructure is in ruins.

“The air here in Palu smells like rotting corpses,” a friend recently told me over Facebook. “It’s unhealthy and aftershocks still rumble and looters are everywhere.”

With Palu’s bureaucrats, business people and teachers fleeing, no one knows how county governments will be able to function. Life isn’t just on hold for city dwellers; everything in the province, it seems, has come to a standstill.

My friends in several Central Sulawesi communities have told me over Facebook that, even though bottled water is scarce, they’re afraid to boil river water still cloudy with debris from the earthquake.

Many rural families receive scholarships to private schools in Palu that train their children to be midwives, pharmacists or medical technicians. What will happen to those already enrolled, whose schools are now shuttered or destroyed?

What will happen to the pregnant women in remote areas who can’t access doctors or midwives because they have all been sent to Palu?

What will happen to the flow of goods that once entered the Port of Palu and were then transported via truck across Central Sulawesi’s mountains?

The rural poor often end up suffering the most after natural disasters.

In Central Sulawesi, I fear this will be the case as well.

The Conversation

Jennifer Nourse, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Richmond.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.