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Mentawai Islands hit by more earthquakes

Media Release: Thursday 11 October, 2007:

Mentawai Islands hit by more earthquakes and health crisis, SurfAid International launches appeal to help.

Earthquakes continue to pepper the Mentawai Island chain, off Indonesia’s West Sumatran coast, since two major earthquakes three weeks ago.

Humanitarian aid organisation, SurfAid International, has sent eight emergency relief boats into the isolated region - which lies 150km west of Padang - since the big two earthquakes, measuring 8.4 and 7.9 on the Richter scale, struck on 12 and 13 September and literally turned the place upside-down.

SurfAid has been addressing the dire, long-term health situation of the islanders for the past seven years and has a proven track record of an effective emergency program after responding to the Sumatran earthquakes and tsunami two and a half years ago.

On board the SurfAid boats, which are usually used for surfing charters, are medical staff, and health and damage assessment teams. The boats are also carrying cargos of building, shelter and hygiene kits, food and medical supplies.

More than 25,000 of the total Mentawai population of 70,000 are still living under leaf and plastic huts on hillside camps away from their villages as thousands of their homes have been destroyed, and others are uninhabitable.

The traumatised communities fear another earthquake and possible tsunami and are too scared to return to the ocean to fish or to farm their lands.

Serious illnesses such as acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea are particularly affecting young children and babies.

In the worst affected Mentawai villages, before the earthquakes, up to 32 per cent of children under 12 die, according to a UNESCO study in 2002. The majority of these deaths can be attributed to chest infections, diarrhea, bad or unclean birthing and malaria. The contributing underlying causes of these deaths are mostly due to malnutrition and anemia in children and pregnant women, both of which work to weaken the immune system.

Isolation, lack of radio or telephone communication, and a fuel crisis are hampering efforts to get to these vulnerable communities, most of which are only accessible by boat.

There are less than 10 kilometres of roads in the Mentawai Islands and some have been damaged by the earthquakes, along with bridges, making access even more difficult.

The coral reefs have lifted, half to one metre in places, creating a new challenge for the emergency relief boat captains, who normally run surf charters in the Mentawai.

Strong southerly trade winds have made the aid response even more difficult, with choppy seas and heavy shore breaks hindering beach and river access to villages.

The four-island chain was particularly hit hard in the south, close to the earthquake epicentres, killing three and injuring 99 injured, with more deaths reported in the makeshift camps since the earthquakes.

About 60 per cent of the south Mentawai region has been destroyed or damaged, according to data compiled by SurfAid staff, who were working in the islands when the earthquakes struck.

SurfAid assessments have shown serious damage to houses, schools, health clinics, government buildings, churches and mosques right throughout the island chain.

There was flooding from a 1-1.5m tsunami surge in some villages, which wrecked at least one school and houses.

Nearly all the villagers are living in camps on higher ground - they have made temporary leaf shelters on wooden platforms to try to stay dry - as aftershocks continue to rattle the area.

It is also monsoon season and it has been raining so people are living in the mud in dirty, cramped conditions. Food is scarce and there is concern about an epidemic in such harsh conditions.

SurfAid International Emergency Preparedness (E-Prep) Mentawai Manager, Stephen Ray, said people in the village of Sibaibai, on the island of Pagai Utara (North Pagai), were given wrong information about the date of another earthquake and SurfAid has been telling people that no technology exists that can accurately predict another earthquake.

The SurfAid E-Prep team, as part of a three-year AusAID-funded program, was working in the islands when the earthquakes struck. They have been preparing villagers by creating evacuation routes to higher ground and running evacuation drills.

Since the earthquakes the E-Prep team has been calming the displaced communities. The local people don’t understand why their land and reefs have lifted. The E-Prep team is also working with the communities to help prevent an epidemic.

SurfAid Doctor Adit, on board SurfAid relief boat D’bora, has been training SurfAid staff in emergency health assessment so a targeted response can be mounted.

Australian Tom Plummer is running SurfAid’s emergency response from Padang, along with SurfAid’s Communications Director, Kirk Willcox, who is also an Australian. Both live in Padang.

SurfAid International has launched an urgent appeal to assist the villagers of the Mentawai Island chain – also known as the Forgotten Islands. You can donate via SurfAid’s website at

The islands are 150km west of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, and SurfAid staff is travelling into villages and hamlets by small boats, through the surf zone onto beaches and up rivers, to assess the ongoing needs of the villagers.

An earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale hit at 10.43pm, Wednesday 26 September, striking fear yet again into the traumatised Mentawai islanders who are still camped on higher ground, away from their villages, in fear of a tsunami.

The 6.4 earthquake last week sent terrified people running into the streets of the Mentawai regional capital, Tuapejat, according to SurfAid staff on the (shaky) ground. So you can imagine the fear on the darkened, hillside camps scattered throughout the jungle.

Another 6.2 strength earthquake hit below the Mentawai Islands (160km WSW of Bengkulu, which is on the West Sumatran mainland) yesterday (Tuesday 2 October).

You can donate to the Mentawai Earthquake Appeal through the SurfAid website at or you can text-to-donate by texting the message ‘surf aid’, ‘aid’, or ‘surf’ to 469 for an automatic $3 donation.


© Scoop Media

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