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Life in Bali after the Eruption of Volcano Mount Agung

Life in Bali after the Eruption of Volcano Mount Agung

On Sunday 25th November 2017 the active volcano Mount Agung (which is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire) began to erupt after more than half a decade of calm. Local Bali expat, Amanda Flynn reached out to us for help.

Around 180,000 residents were evacuated from their rural mountain homes within a 12km radius of the centre of the crater. Mount Agung last erupted in 1963, killing more than 1000 people and destroying several villages.

After the initial series of smaller eruptions, and despite the media’s temporary loss of interest, there is still daily seismic activity within the volcano. Thousands of people within a 4km radius of the volcano are still displaced from their villages and living in temporary tented villages from Klungkung (south of the volcano) to North Bali, with no end in sight.

There are currently 10-15,000+ people in evacuation centres (plus uncounted thousands in informal arrangements or lucky enough to find safe accommodation with family/friends or host families).

While official evacuee numbers have dropped from a peak of 180,000, the unpredictability of this particular volcano was illustrated on 13th February 2018 when the alert status was lowered from the highest warning (Level 4) to Level 3 (standby), only to erupt within 24 hours, sending an ash plume 1.5km skyward with several deep and shallow quakes and tremors felt in the surrounding area.

Eruption of Volcano Mount Agung
Amanda Flynn distributing Cambridge Masks

Australian resident, Amanda Flynn spends a lot of time in local Ashram Ratu Bagus and has been helping them mitigate the risk from the ash associated with the eruptions at their temporary accommodation around 35km from the mountain after the community was evacuated from their permanent location 12km from the volcano.

On the 4th December she sent us a request to ask for mask donations, and luckily we were able to help. A couple of weeks ago our Marketing Director Nina Griffee caught up with Amanda in Bali to understand the situation better and see how Amanda was getting on.

Eruption of Volcano Mount Agung
Mask distribution at Ashram, Ratu Bagus

Can you tell us about the first few days of the volcano erupting?

Well, curiously I missed the evacuation of our Ashram in Muncan, Karangasem by about one hour, as I was flying home that night. When I landed and saw the news reports I felt really alarmed and immediately wanted to get back to help. To be honest though I don’t think it was a big shock to the locals nearby the mountain because the animals had been acting strangely leading up to the mass evacuation, with snakes and monkeys coming down from the mountain about a week before which alerted some of the locals to evacuate early. Since they spend their lives working so close to the earth and with animals they knew this was a bad sign.

The earthquakes and tremors increased in frequency pretty rapidly, then plumes of ash and sludge-like cold lava rivers, known as lahar, appeared – often a prelude to the blazing orange lava seen in many volcanic eruptions.

Eruption of Volcano Mount Agung

How did the residents react when you gave out the Cambridge Masks? 

It was actually really sweet, because not only was the fitting process an unusual experience (Balinese people prefer not to have their heads touched and of course it was necessary when helping get the proper fit), but also a lot of the adults were modestly quibbling over the designs. There was one man who was super sad because he didn’t get the Princess Charlotte! – I couldn’t take him being disappointed anymore and managed to swap it for one a few days later. The recipients were very touched that people from a company half way around the world wanted to assist them.

At first it was difficult to communicate the difference between your particulate tested masks and ordinary disposable household dust masks. This kind of sophisticated product is not something a Balinese person would normally consider buying (the price point is much higher) and the dust masks are cheap and freely available – unrated dust masks were widely distributed throughout the early days of evacuations.

However ordinary dust masks don’t cut it, since there is a huge difference between the larger particle size of normal dust and that from superfine volcanic ash (more like almost invisible pulverized glass). Also the single wear dust masks tend to be used for months as Balinese are very economical and don’t like to discard anything given to them!  Being able to safely re-use the Cambridge masks is better for the environment and more protective and practical for the people.

Eruption of Volcano Mount Agung

So were you able to communicate the differences?

Yes, but it took a while. Adjusting mindsets from short term thinking (e.g. ‘I cant see anything in the air, so there’s nothing to worry about’) to long term prevention thinking is critical because there aren’t always immediately noticeable effects from ash fall on health. It can take months to decades to show up. For instance many of the older generation who lived through the 1963 eruption developed asthma and cardiac difficulties later in life, so when reminded of this, it began to sink in that it was a good idea.

Eruption of Volcano Mount Agung

How are the residents feeling about the evacuation? 

A lot of them have anxiety to be honest and they just want to get back home, since their land is their source of income and right now they have no other way to earn money. I know it sounds crazy, but there aren’t always certificates for ownership of land in some rural areas of Bali. So even if your family has cultivated the same area for hundreds of years, if someone was to decide to take your farmland they could technically just occupy it. Hopefully this won’t be the case, but it’s one of many difficulties playing on people’s minds. The government is trying to balance the needs of people to get back to their livelihoods with their responsibility to keep them safe – not an enviable task!

The constant eruptions of volcanic ash and gases since September 2017 have deposited huge amounts of ash around the crater which wash down like avalanches of wet concrete during torrential seasonal rains. These ‘cold lava’ flows (lahars) have destroyed villages, mountain roads and bridges, agricultural lands and community infrastructure. The thousands who travel in and out of the red (exclusion) zone each day face the threat of airborne ash exposure, sudden lahar flows, and being trapped in difficult terrain if caught in the daily earth tremors or larger eruption events.

Agung is out of the international news, but hundreds of thousands of people are completely focused on living in the shadow of their sacred volcano, conscientiously carrying on their lives in an unstable and unpredictable environment. Several mask recipient organisations have teams who travel into the exclusion zone daily to help people and animals with food, water and general clean up/ rebuilding tasks. They are super grateful for assistance from The Cambridge Mask Company – your masks are one of the tools helping the helpers and protecting the amazing people generously caring for the local communites in their time of need.

Amanda continues to work with affected locals and has been travelling round Bali giving out our masks and providing basic education where needed about the dangers of ash fall and simple measures to stay healthy.

Eruption of Volcano Mount Agung

As a ‘Stratovolcano’ (commonly considered the most violent eruptors and causing the most casualties) Mt. Agung has an incredible explosive capacity. Gases caught inside the magma (lava) increase under pressure as magma rises to the surface – pretty much like bubbles in a champagne bottle – so when the volcano erupts the force of the discharge literally tears the mountain and magma to pieces, sending a volcanic ash plume at high velocity into the sky before slowly falling through the atmosphere and settling up to hundreds of kilometres from the crater.

The fresh magma and gases rising to the surface and releasing can continue for days to years (e.g. activity continued for over 1 year in 1963) and during the biggest eruption, the ash cloud pitched Bali into almost total darkness, blocking sunlight for 3 days.

Although most 1,100 known victims of that eruption were killed immediately by pyroclastic flows (hot clouds of gases, ash and rock debris that race down the mountain at speeds of several hundred kilometers per hour which nobody can escape) the death toll from ash fall continues to be re-evaluated as scientific data links long term pulmonary (breathing) and cardiac disease research to these events.

Freshly fallen ash particles can have acid coatings which can cause irritation to the lungs and eyes. According to the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network medical services should expect an increase in the number of patients with respiratory and eye symptoms during and after an ash fall event. Preventing the ash entering peoples lungs  (breathing protection) and eyes (goggles) in the first place is the single best solution, and wearing a mask (plus goggles) designed to filter the minute size of the particles released from volcanoes is the single best strategy.