Travelling Waves of Knowledge and Technology in the Tsunami Warning System in Indonesia

In 2021, the global community will mark the beginning of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Marine-related sciences can support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by providing a better understanding of the natural and societal dynamics that trigger coastal and marine disasters and significantly disrupt development processes.

For Indonesia as well as most of the Indian Ocean region, the historical 2004 tsunami marked the most severe coastal catastrophe in modern times. Casualties reached up to 350,000 including those missing. There were no warning systems in place at that time to drive communities away from this coastal threat. This catastrophe resulted in advancements in science and the eventual development of a Tsunami Early Warning System. Historical records of past tsunamis show that tsunamis can reoccur with return periods of tens to hundreds of years. These historical records are buried in the layers of soils and sands that could tell us the period of events through carbon dating analysis. They convinced natural scientists of future tsunami threats, including the great Sunda Megathrust tsunami event that could potentially threaten coastal communities along the south coasts of Jawa.

Meanwhile communities in coastal areas draw on their collective memories and belief systems in making sense of the past tsunami and potential tsunami threats. In many of the coastal communities’ traditions in the south of Jawa’s coasts, the myths of the Queen of the South Sea remain, and are embedded in Javanese cultures and presumed by natural scientists as associated with past tsunami events. Hence, it is not surprising that the adoption of new technologies of the Tsunami Early Warning System, which has been developed less than two decades ago, creates anxieties, ambivalences, and societal contestations in various ways. Some of this can be explained by the asymmetric production of knowledge between and among laypeople and scientists on the perceived marine threats.

After the 2004 tsunami, the German government pledged at least 45 million Euros to contribute to the development of a tsunami warning system in Indonesia through the German-Indonesian Tsunami Warning System project (GITEWS). The urge also came from the fact that German citizens and tourists at the Indian Ocean coasts were significantly affected by the catastrophe. Implementation of the GITEWS was planned to start in 2005. A high-end warning system should eventually be set up within 3 years.

The research in the context of the current project investigates the complex interactions between actors and agents in Indonesia, Germany as well as several neighbouring countries of Indonesia up to the UN Body that governs the coordination of the warning system at the regional and global level.  Focus is placed on the role of different types of scientific and everyday knowledge in developing and implementing the Tsunami Early Warning System. As such, the research is inspired by former work on the role of knowledge in diverse future-making projects in Southeast Asia. One of the key actors in the Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System stated in a preliminary interview: ”…kami bukan masyarakat ilmu pengetahuan (we are not a knowledge society)”. Through fieldwork in different science and technology-relevant institutions, which are involved in the development of the Indonesian Tsunami Warning System, this study aims to investigate this arguable statement and sheds light on a possibly typical and unique fabric of a knowledge society that is assumed to be highly contextual to the Indonesian science systems.

It is important to note that knowledge societies do not simply emerge as a result of technological development and are non-uniform, nevertheless consciously constructed by social actors. Seen as such, the Tsunami Early Warning System becomes a complex social artefact, and the role of taking into account socio-political processes as part of developing such an Early Warning System is underlined. The study seeks to explain which knowledge, ideas and ideologies were produced and mobilised as part of building the Indonesia Tsunami Early Warning System, a non-indigenous product of a post-industrial science community.

Methodologically, the project combines ethnographic and qualitative interview methods amongst agents and actors of the Tsunami Early Warning System as well as participatory observations at community level. The collected data range from interview transcripts, media reports, photographic material, to field diaries, focused group discussions and workshop notes.

Preliminary findings from a first fieldwork phase in January and February 2020 indicate that the project departed from the dominating role of natural ‘hard’ scientists, including seismologists and engineers in developing an end-to-end warning system concept. Political and cultural entanglements had initially not been anticipated within the project design.  Methodologically the project draws onIrina Rafliana will work on this research project for 3,5 years (until 2023) while being supported by DAAD, DIE, and formerly ZMT.  She is supervised in her work by Prof. Dr. Anna-Katharina Hornidge.

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