Building community resilience to natural hazards - can northern Australia and eastern Indonesia learn from each other?


Building community resilience to natural hazards - can northern Australia and eastern Indonesia learn from each other?

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Timor Health Clinic

This landslide in west Timor has isolated the health clinic

By Steve Sutton, Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research

Despite having a fever and feeling pretty bad, Nelson is about to get on his motorbike and ride for an hour and a half along a winding road to setup a midwives data collection system in the town of Soe. Nelson is a young member of the NTT health department and is a bit of a legend for his motorbike riding – most people would take 2 hours to get to Soe!

Nelson is just one of the bright, motivated people I met accompanying Bronwyn Myers, Rohan Fisher and the remarkable Dr Andre Tanoe to Kupang, the provincial capital of Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) this week. They are supporting the use of Frontline SMS, a free system for communicating health information by SMS, by the health department in NTT, in a project funded by AusAID’s Public Sector Linkages Program. It seems everywhere they turn there is another group keen to use FSMS. I am here as part of a research program to understand how to develop community resilience for bushfire and natural hazard management. CDU and RIEL have put together an integrated program of research as part of the new Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, launched in Canberra on 10 December. The RIEL program “Building Community Resilience in northern Australia” has recognised the strategic and practical importance of engaging with north Australia’s nearest neighbours.


Steve Sutton presenting at SMS project review workshop Kupang, December 2013

As a regional support hub for disaster relief, the Darwin ‘disaster catchment’ includes the 4 million people of NTT, as well as the remote communities of northern Australia. But NTT is not just ‘part of the problem’; it is also part of the identification of solutions to generating locally sustainable resilient communities. There are many similarities between the NT, indeed northern Australia in general, and NTT:

  • Distance from capital cities and centres of power
  • Culturally distinct to the ‘mainstream’
  • Many remote communities suffer regular periodic isolation
  • Many places have very poor infrastructure
  • A high incidence of fires and other natural hazards
  • Limited human capital, including rudimentary or low levels of education, skills and knowledge
  • Local hybrid or subsistence economies

Nusa Tenggara Timur is also a place where NGOs and governments are working hard to develop solutions to the suite of problems associated with improving health and wellbeing – not to mention living standards, of millions of people. Among this intense mix of activities the development of resilience to bushfires and natural hazards at local district and regional level is an important consideration for agencies at all levels. Indonesia established a national disaster management agency in 2008, the Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana (BNPB) and the provincial governments have also developed agencies to coordinate disasters (bencana) at the regional level.

These agencies have as part of their charter the development of local resilience at the local level and are keen to explore ways of strengthening its key components. One important example, which is slightly different to the priorities identified in northern Australia, is food security. In Australia, while there remain major issues with Indigenous nutrition and health in particular, the extensive and reasonably efficient transport system negates some concern about food supply . So much so that a cyclone kit is recommended to have food for three days only.

But in NTT, with a large proportion of the rural population engaged in subsistence agriculture, bushfires and natural hazards can have a catastrophic effect albeit somewhat delayed from the actual event. Even when floods (banjir), earthquake (gempa bumi) and bushfire (kebakaran liar) do not directly kill many people, starvation and malnutrition may lead to poor health and subsequent death tolls.

The development of relatively simple tools to help communities prepare for bushfires and natural hazards is an important part of the program for the provincial disaster management agency Badan Penunggunalan Bencana Dearah. Warning systems using broadcast SMS based on free shareware can be a valuable tool in areas subject to floods. Communities upstream warn their downstream neighbours, who stockpile materials to manage the worst of the flood.

These and other mechanisms display a pattern of innovation that we can learn from in northern Australia. This was really demonstrated to me when I met Imelda Adu, a pocket dynamo working on a partnership project for Care International. She and her colleagues are working in 34 communities in NTT with projects that are designed to build human capital, address environmental issues including climate change and prepare for disasters and natural hazards. This project has a dynamic program of consultation and collaboration with villages to identify the specific project priorities and work out how they will be implemented. Imelda knows everyone and introduced Jus Nakmofa who works for the Disaster Management Society, another NGO. Jus has been involved in every major disaster to strike NTT for over 20 years. His wry wit and stoicism are like a microcosm of the wider society. Jus is a touchstone of sensibility, ensuring that local lessons, hard learnt in the real world, are not forgotten by policy authors at the provincial and national level.

SMS review workshop participants

SMS review workshop participants – Provincial Health Office, Kupang December 2013

This engagement is the first step in an ongoing research and resilience development program over the next 8 years. The research collaboration between RIEL and NTT will bring benefits to north Australia and hopefully to NTT. In the end, the best way to develop community resilience is to get people working with their neighbours for their mutual gain. What a sensible idea!



I am writing this sitting in the brand new bale of the otherwise ‘mature’ Maliana Hotel, looking over the bay at mountains. The placid bay seems to have encouraged the low-slung design of the many boats, sharp bows slicing past a school of fish being attacked by seabirds. Tracing the beach in front of me, Jalan Siliwangi is a constant flow of bemos, motorbikes, trucks and pedestrians; some pushing carts and yoking building materials. Noise, movement, colour in the foreground, stunning landscape behind. And people texting while riding a motorbike; there is a lot to take in here and it feels like there is not time to waste doing it.
Oh – I just found out that Nelson made it! And a boat has just dropped a net around the school of fish in the bay. This is a place where people grasp opportunities with both hands. We need to do the same with this chance to learn about community resilience.