October 28, 2011
When Mount Merapi started rumbling last year, Indonesia turned to the country’s preeminent geophysicist and volcanologist for guidance.
The millions of people living on the mountain’s slopes had to depend on Surono to determine whether they should evacuate and how far they should flee.
Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono devotedly followed Surono’s updates on what later turned out to be the Merapi’s largest eruption in more than a century.
Born 56 years ago on July 8 to a poor family from Banyumas, Central Java, Surono never thought he would become the preeminent volcanologist in a country that is home to a third of the world’s volcanoes.
Surono had always wanted to be a lecturer, and he pursued that dream by enrolling in the physics department of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).
“I didn’t have any money back then, and I was already married,” he said. “I had to support my family by working as a freelance photographer, wandering around everyday offering my services to random people.”
In 1982, while working as a lecture assistant at his alma mater, he was assigned to accompany a geologist from Wisconsin who was conducting research in Mount Kelud, East Java.
After observing how people lived their lives on the slopes of the mountain, he decided volcanoes were his new obsession.
“Instead of teaching those intelligent people in ITB, I decided I would teach these simple mountain people to save their lives,” he said.
He told his superiors that he no longer wanted to be a lecturer and left to join the Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Agency (PVMBG), which he now heads. He earned his masters degree in 1983 at Grenoble University in Grenoble, France, and got his doctorate in geophysics at Savoei University in Chambery, France, in 1993.
The burden of the job, he said, was sometimes overwhelming and even unbearable. Thousands of people would evacuate and have their lives turned upside down if he told them to do so.
“I’m very stubborn and I will not have my recommendations not followed [by people],” said Surono, who is known to berate reporters who ask him questions without understanding the issues at hand.
For instance, he has frequently been criticized for recommending that people evacuate even when a volcano seems to be nowhere near erupting.
“If I’m wrong and the volcano doesn’t erupt, I don’t mind being fired from my job,” Surono said. “But if I’m right, thousands of people would not be able to save themselves in time.”
Before Mount Kelud erupted in 2007, thousands of anxious evacuees begged him to let them go home after living in refugee camps for three weeks, but he insisted they stay. The mountain eventually did erupt, and the evacuees were spared.
In July, when Mount Lokon in North Sulawesi began showing an increase in volcanic activity, Surono recommended the local government immediately relocate its people. It refused, saying the mountain erupted every year and never killed anybody. In the end there was a serious eruption, and the local government had to scramble to save the residents.
Surono believes there is no such thing as too much caution when dealing with nature, especially in Indonesia, where more than a hundred volcanoes are active.
“The only certain thing about nature is the uncertainty,” he said. “Even the most cutting-edge equipment wasn’t made to defeat nature. Technology only helps to read it better.”
Surono’s team must consider every single detail before deciding whether to increase or lower the alert level or if the danger zone should be extended or reduced.
“Even then, my calculations will never be good enough,” Surono said.
On the other hand, when Merapi erupted a second time last year and claimed dozens of lives, Surono was criticized for not being able to persuade some villagers to leave their village.
“I admit it was my fault,” he said. “I didn’t try hard enough to force them to evacuate. I’m going to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Despite their destructive capacity, Surono said Indonesians should feel blessed to live in a country with hundreds of volcanoes.
“We have to acknowledge that we take so many things from volcanoes,” Surono said. “All of those beautiful high-rise buildings in our cities use materials from volcanoes. We take a lot and the mountains never ask anything in return.
“I don’t think it would be too much to ask for us to learn to respect and leave the mountains temporarily when they want to grow and clean themselves.”
(x the JG)