Monday, November 7, 2011

Road Construction and Kerinci Seblat National Park Part 1.5: Malapetaka!

Graphic from Padang Ekspres
In the last post I mentioned that I would focus on the ecological and environmental impacts of roads.  I'm going to postpone that discussion so that I can talk about a mini-crisis that has gripped Sungai Penuh over the past couple of days.  Last week torrential rains caused widespread flooding and other calamities in the Kerinci valley and surrounding regions, including Solok Selatan district and Pesisir Selatan district, both of which share borders with Kerinci Seblat National Park.  While the flooding and landslides caused by the rains are tragic, the provide an illustration of several points I made in the last post.

Map from
As I mentioned in the last post, Sungai Penuh, in the middle of the Kerinci Valley, is served by three roads to the wider world.  Two roads take different routes to Padang, a city of just over one million people 6-7 hours to the north.  The other road follows a tributary of the Batang Hari river south out of the valley towards Bangko and on further to Sarolangun and Jambi, 11 hours away to the east of Sungai Penuh.  The Bukit Barisan mountains, which form a spine longitudinally down the western side of Sumatra, are the major obstacle.  These mountains make it difficult to get in or out of the valley and this is what has spurred the call for new roads to link up "isolated" areas like Lempur village.  So as you can imagine, with only three roads in or out, if one of them is put out of commission for some reason or another, commercial havoc is wrought on the denizens of the valley.

This is exactly what happened a couple of days ago.  The floods, exacerbated by the longer-than-normal dry season (1), triggered several longsors or mudflows, one of which completely blocked one of the routes to Padang (known locally as the Tapan road).  Normally this road is used mainly by truck traffic delivering goods (including gasoline) from Padang in the north and the port at Painan on the west coast.  The longsor covered the road, and so for the past few days gasoline has been in short supply.  I noticed it first when I went down to Lempur on Saturday: a line of cars and trucks extending for probably 300 meters in either direction from the Pertamina (2) station in south Sungai Penuh.  I'd never seen anything like it; the only thing that comes close is pictures of fuel lines in the US in the early 1970s caused by the OPEC oil embargo.

Traffic snarl caused by line at the Pertamina
Pertamina with Pit-bound profiteer in foreground
This morning the story was the same.  I didn't want to face the crowd, but I was down to my reserve tank, and to me it's always good to have a full-tank when you're in a foreign country, so after the two meetings I had scheduled were cancelled because the meetee didn't show I made my way up the hill to another Pertamina.  Motorcycles and stepthroughs swarmed around the lone pump like worker bees on the queen, while scores of cars and trucks queued up.  Then from across the street I spied a roadside gasoline stall.  These are common in Indonesia as Pertaminas are sometimes few and far between.  Trucking and bartering in a way that would make Adam Smith proud, small-time entrepreneurs fill jerry cans with gas to sell to passing motorists.  I usually avoid them because I worry about impurities in the gas, but today the convenience was too much to resist.  Normally gas is about .59 cents a litre, or $2.25 or so a gallon in Indonesia.  You generally pay a bit of a premium on the roadside, but today the price was 10,000 rupiah per litre; about $1.10, or $4.16 a gallon.  This is a four-fold jump in the price of gas.  Friends told me that in some places the price was as high as 20,000 rupiah per liter.  I didn't want to wait around, so I forked over 50,000 rupiah for 5 liters, made some snide remarks about the special hell waiting for profiteers and gougers, and kabured.  I did take the opportunity to make some pictures and talk to some of the folks waiting.  One gentleman told me he had been there an hour already, and it looked like he had at least another hour to go.  He also told me that they are rationing gas at this point, so you can't get a full tank.

The reason I'm writing this post is because I think the road advocates will use the fuel shortage as support for the position that a new road is needed.  What better proof could you ask for?  It's especially timely since the investigative team I mentioned in the previous post is currently examining the proposed roads.  All it takes is one landslide to cripple the economy of the valley; think of all the productive hours lost while civil servants wait in line at the pumps (3).  Now imagine what would happen if the local volcano erupted, covering one of the existing roads in lava or lahar while thousands attempted to flee the valley.

But there's another side to the debate.  Though it's hard to prove at this point, the longsor that closed the road was most likely due to a) deforestation, b) poor engineering, or c) a combination of the two.  I've written previously on how cutting down trees undermines the stability of slopes.  Trees have extensive root systems which help to anchor the ground in place.  Cut down the trees and you lose the anchors.  Trees are especially important in tropical places (like Indonesia) where there is a lot of rain.  For some insight into the second possibility, have a look at the picture to the left.  I took this photo of a road cut on the way to Lempur last Saturday.  Look how steep the slope is.  There's no buttressing or anything else to add stability.  As you can see, erosion has already started, though the cut is only a year or so old.  These types of things are common around here, and the result is pretty predictable.  Shear stress eventually exceeds shear strength, and it all comes tumbling down.

So is the answer more roads, or is it more money and better engineering?  I don't know the answer to that question, but for the time being it looks like the former is going to win out. 


(1)  When the ground is dry less water is able to infiltrate (seep down into the ground).  Once the ground is a little bit moist it is much more permeable.  So very dry ground often makes flooding worse.  

(2)  Pertamina is the state-owned petroleum company; most if not all gas stations in Indonesia are Pertamina stations. 


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