Smong: The Tsunami Story

Ten years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, learning from a local knowledge on tsunami emergency

Jacopo Pasotti

“I will tell you about the legacy of the great 2004 tsunami,” said Ella Meilianda, a young Indonesian researcher. “The lessons are there, for all of humanity”.

Fishermen (JP/Sumatra, 2014)

It was 2012, my first time in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. All was new and finely rebuilt, but for Meilianda, the view was entirely different. Meilianda had just returned from Europe to work on natural risk mitigation studies in Banda Aceh, site of the annual International Workshop and Expo of Sumatran Tsunami Disaster and Recovery held yearly since after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. “At the first few conferences there were hundreds of delegates from all around the world. Today, the interest is fast fading, yet we intend to keep the attention high,” Meilianda insisted. “Tsunami remains a real threat”. The town of Banda Aceh had been rebuilt, but preparedness to future hazards was not — Banda Aceh was still vulnerable.

True to Meilianda’s prediction, at the 2012 conference I saw only a few international delegates in attendance. Aghast at this realization, Meilianda’s insight has stayed with me all this time: we tend to forget disasters faster than one would think.

What Meilianda, a coastal hazard expert at the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Centre (TDMRC) in Banda Aceh, wants to achieve is crystal clear: “The legacy of the Indonesian tsunami is tangible: now the world knows about tsunamis and is willing to take action to mitigate this hazard because of that disaster. Today everybody knows that tsunami are a real threat to millions of people. Before 2004 people in Aceh did not even know what a tsunami was. We are working hard to build a resilient society.”

In 2014, ten years after the tsunami, I visited Banda Aceh again. I wanted to witness and report about the recovery. I also wanted to listen to scientists’ views on lessons learned in a decade of studies. Yet whenever I mentioned the 10-year anniversary, the response was usually one of great astonishment: “Ten years, really? I did not realize so much time passed. I remember it as if it happened just yesterday.”

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami has left a deep cut in history.

On Boxing Day 2004, at 7:58 am, the earth’s crust in the Indian Ocean bottom broke down along a line of 1200 km and generated a mega-earthquake. With a magnitude of about 9, it is one of the strongest quakes on record. The entire planet rattled and the ocean floor raised up by 5 meters. The sudden spurt made by a plate that sank beneath the other shook the ocean and generated massive tsunami waves. It killed more than 225,000 people in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, India and nine other countries in the Indian Ocean rim. In Sumatra alone, victims were 170,000 (with 50,000 missing).

Now we know that history could have been different, as it happened in the tiny Simeulue island. The island of 78,000 inhabitants is located 60 kilometers from the epicenter of the earthquake. “It was hit by the tsunami just 15 minutes after the quake, but there were only seven victims,” reports in a study Syafwina, an expert in natural hazards at the TDMRC (currently a PhD student at the University of Tokyo). It took 45 minutes before the wave reached the shores of the province of Banda Aceh. There things went differently, for the population was taken by surprise. “At Simeulue people were prepared for the tsunami. In Banda Aceh they were not — we’re trying to figure out how to learn from this story of preparedness,” says Khairul Munadi, head of TDMRC.

What was the secret recipe for survival of the Simeulue fishermen? In one word: smong. Smong (which means “tsunami” in Devayan Language) has nothing to do with modern technology or advanced government programs for risk mitigation. It is part of Simeulue indigenous culture, a teaching of sorts handed down through songs, short poems, lullabies and stories where smong is associated with a plain message: when the sea is acting weird, when nature launches warning signals, you need to escape uphill. Do not ask questions, do not look back.

While on the way to Banda Aceh airport, the story was carefully told to me by a becak (motorbike-taxi ) driver, originally from Simeulue.“I was there with my grandparents. After the quake everybody in the village left their things and started running inland,” he told me “I was a child. I really did not understand what was happening. I just recall everybody shouting: Smong! Smong! And run. So I also ran”. I tried to get more details about the signs he witnessed in nature, but he could not come up with any relevant account. “My family, they all died,” he told me. When he saw my puzzled expression (was your family among the few who died in the island?) he simply added: “They were here in Banda Aceh.”

The facts are described in several media accounts and academic reports. After the quake, and it was a strong one, the villagers saw the sea water recede (a phenomenon that is associated with large tsunamis). This fact, associated with extraordinarily strong quakes, triggered their cultural alarm. “Shouting smong! Loud voice, they run away.” The number of survivors, considering the proximity to the epicenter, is hard to believe.
In the media the story was translated into an anecdotal success story of a small but sturdy community of fishermen who, isolated from the mainland, had developed their indigenous knowledge-based emergency plan. Media sometimes presented it the miracle island, or the island that was saved by folklore, or the fishermen that were saved by an instinctive knowledge. End of the story: instinct, folklore, miracle. It is an evocative, moving story of a small, secluded community deeply connected to nature. The Simeulue story was therefore amply reported in the media. But there is some science behind it, some learning that could be extracted and used in the future, something that often evades proper media attention. It takes time for science to emerge and this, too, is often an obstacle to media reporting. Ten years after the tsunami, scientists are now unraveling the mechanism of this kind of knowledge. As well, they are just beginning to transfer the knowledge into science and hazard mitigation practice.

Rice fields in Banda Aceh. The tsunami wave was 8–10 high in this area (JP/Sumatra, 2014)

In fact, there is not much that is instinctive or miraculous in this story. Scientists at TDMRC have gone beyond the tale and have recognized the long-term value of indigenous knowledge in disaster risk reduction. Calling in science, the smong story turns out to be one of the clearest, though rarest, examples of resilience. Resilience is “an organization’s capacity to anticipate disruptions, adapt to events, and create lasting value” (thanks Wikipedia! I donated). This means, in other words, that communities that have learned lessons from previous hardships and disasters — and have somehow adapted to gradual or abrupt changes — are better prepared to cope with future (similar, I suppose) difficulties. In order to test whether the Simeulue story has lessons beyond instinct and anecdote, scientists need to go back in time and search natural events that have shaped the villagers’ knowledge. Understanding of the past is the key to building resilience. “Where did they get their knowledge? Why did they not forget it? Why did people in Banda Aceh and the surrounding area not know about this?” wonders Munadi.

At the 2014 international disaster risk mitigation workshop in Banda Aceh, facing a small audience of tsunami experts chiefly from Indonesia and Japan, Munadi explains the state of their understanding. He says that they had conducted a preliminary research project and found that in 1907 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake wiped out 70% of the population in Simeulue. Memory of this calamity was transmitted from generation to generation through buai-buai (lullabies), nafi-nafi (advice) and traditional poems. One of the poems, translated into English, could not be more educational. Syafwina published the text in her report:

Please listen to this story
one day in the past
a village was sinking
that what have been told
starting with earthquakes
following by giant wave
whole the country was sinking
if the strong earthquake
followed by the lowering of sea water
please find in hurry
a higher place
it is called “Smong”
a history of our ancestor
please always remember
the message and instruction
Smong is your bath
Earthquakes is your swing bed
thunderstorm is your music
thunderlight is your lamp

Experts say smong naturally became an early warning system linked to large earthquakes on the island. It was taught from mother to son, father to daughter. Interestingly, according to Munadi, hints of the 1907 tsunami are there in some inland Sumatran poems, too. However, they did not turn into a warning system as it happened in Simeulue. “They were not converted into a warning code. Instead, they became fantasy, a folklore that lost its original message, and eventually went lost.” There was a time when acehnese also used songs and poems to amuse and, at the same time, educate the community, sharing experience and messages.

In the mainland island of Sumatra too, in Aceh Basar province, scientists have retrieved traditional songs and poems containing messages about past tsunami. Most of them traveled through history as legends rather than as the experience of ancestors. Such legends were appreciated for their beauty but lost their educational message. Contrary to the inhabitants of Simeulue, Acehnese did not develop a tsunami resilience. Resilience implies learning, adapting, and saving a new habit that needs to be kept alive for future emergency, as villagers in Simeulue did.

Ok, so far this is a success story of a small and remote community and we have understood where it could have originated and how it was retained. So, how can scientists help to build a tsunami resilient society in Aceh (and possibly the Indian Ocean rim)? Where does the science come in? Basically, how can society benefit from 10 years of learning from the Sumatran calamity?

In fact, this was the main theme of the workshop held in Banda Aceh this year. It will hardly be reported in the media, as I did not meet any other journalist at the coffee-breaks. I will try to highlight the key message, of smong: indigenous warning systems may have scientific validity, and can be integrated into risk reduction practices, at least in this region of the Earth.

Inside the Baiturrahman mosquee. Small business, big happiness for the new Pii-Pii mom is buying for us (JP/Sumatra, 2014).

Indeed, this is a geologically disturbed sector of the Planet. Indonesia sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” where three continental plates collide. Frequent seismic and volcanic activity belongs to this country: “We can’t go on as if each tsunami is the first one to hit our coasts. We need preparedness and we have to build a resilient society”, suggests Meilianda.
Granted, you could not have had preparedness and natural hazards mitigation before the Boxing Day Tsunami: “There were no studies, no departments or tsunami specialists in the region. Now there is the TDMRC, and we are growing as a leading tsunami and natural hazards research center in the Indian Ocean.”, says Munadi.

Speaking to Munadi, I definitely had the feeling that the smong story is likely to be the most important lesson learned from the disaster. “The difference between mainland and Simeulue is that here society was distracted by mass media, technology, political clashes, and the internal conflict between the GAM (the independence movement Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) and the government. As the conflict came to an end soon after the tsunami, the next priority is keeping the memory of the disaster and set in place our own warning system.”

But, wait a second. Are scientists suggesting we address the future of tsunami risk mitigation by relying on songs and poems? Ardito Kodijat, who works at the National Program for the Reduction of Risk and Research on tsunami of Unesco, has a definite answer: “Certainly not. Now there is a warning system based on geophones, buoys connected via satellite with the operational centers of Indonesia, Australia, and India. The system is able to alert the authorities in a matter of minutes for Indonesia, in about ten minutes for the other coast of the Indian Ocean”. He is working at the Jakarta Tsunami Information Centre at the UNESCO Office and knows all about these systems — their limits too.

The warning system is one of the outcomes of the tsunami. The program was launched in 2005 by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. In 2013, it became operational. After substantial earthquakes, the signals received by seismographs are analyzed and, in case of tsunami threat, the centers dispatch bulletins to regional operational centers and from there to the media. In the event, buoy sensors placed in the ocean back up the occurrence of tsunami waves, a tsunami risk bulletin warns coastal countries, the process takes ten to fifteen minutes. In Indonesia, the disaster management body (BPBD, established in 2009) coordinates emergency and evacuation and delivers the dispatches. At this stage implementing any evacuation plan depends on the country and regional authorities. Before 2004 there was not such a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean. Technology is now in place. However, this process may lead to significant holdups, misunderstandings, failures.

First tests with the system were at times positive, sometimes not. The problem with the warning system is in its sophistication. “The buoys need to be maintained, some they have been ransacked or tampered,” says Kodijat. Despite all these advancements, a tsunami in the Mentawai Islands in 2012 killed 500. “In 2011, following a strong earthquake, the operational center of Jakarta warned the government of Banda Aceh to sound the sirens for the evacuation. Something went wrong, however. The officer in charge was not there, or he did not press the button, the population remained confused.” In 2012, another strong quake struck and two of the six evacuation sirens in Banda Aceh failed. Today, the warning watch comes via SMS or Twitter too. Great, modernity comes in. “It is a very effective mean of communication, but what if Twitter quits its services? And what could happen if power cuts make mobile phones useless?” asks Kodijat. Technology fails, we need to face this. Technology changes quickly. A strong tsunami may hit Indonesia after two or three generations. Will the warning system be able to keep up with fast-evolving technologies? Will countries be willing to maintain expensive warning devices, decades after a huge tsunami struck Indonesian coasts (and the other countries around the Indian Ocean)?

Traditional knowledge could support scientific and technological solutions. Researchers are trying to integrate tradition into scientific knowledge, and from there into risk reduction practices. “This is vital especially for Indonesia as we are frequently the first country hit by tsunamis generated in the Indian Ocean,” says Munadi. “It is often a matter of minutes. A warning that belongs to local culture may come earlier than official notices, it may save lives.” It is a difficult task. It requires scientifically validating information incorporated into songs and stories. Once this is done institutions have to educate citizens on how to alert each other about a tsunami threat, as the people of Simeulue did.

Meilianda stresses that the public needs to learn how to react wisely. “People have to realize that you need to escape vertically, reach out tall buildings, not horizontally and get stacked into a traffic jam,” she says. “Chaotic scenes that we have seen recently, when people raced through streets, with motorbikes and cars jostling for space, should not happen anymore. They actually caused more damage and injuries than the quakes that triggered this panic.” It was told in the smong song too: “find a higher place.”

Now the smong story has been validated by scientists. Nature’s signs showing an approaching tsunami (sea receding) have been kept in the smong narratives, and it is now scientifically validated. Advices on how to react (reach high) have been validated too. Next step is teaching its value, starting from schoolchildren, but persuading decision makers too. “We should combine new technologies with the Simeulue story and preserve it,” explains Syafwina. As people are more keen on using modern technology rather than listening to traditional oral stories, relying on lullabies and poems alone could prove ineffective. We should implement the smong story in television programs, movies, books or — why not — turn it into a pop-music hit, she suggests.

There is more to learn from the smong story, and it can be applied to other natural hazards, other communities, other regions of the world. This is sparking interest in the science community. Scientists are testing the approach on meteorological hazards, for example. Through interviews targeted to communities that have developed long histories of interaction with the natural elements and a strategy for disaster risk reduction, scientists try to distill what can be assimilated by science and transformed into forecasting systems or prevention. Some populations, for example, observe particular weather indicators that may anticipate the arrival of hurricanes. In the Aceh region, people link particular dark towering clouds forming at the horizon, associated with a peculiar rancid scent from the sea, as predictors of Angeen Badee (strong winds and rough sea). Climate scientists have explained this phenomenon and validated as scientifically correct (the clouds forming are Cumulus nimbus cloud type forming massive clouds that may later on discharge high rainfall, the acid scent should indicate over-evaporation process at the sea surface, they say). This and other selected indigenous knowledge from Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste are being tested in a UNESCO’s program on Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS).
Not all beliefs and tradition can be simply translated into science and mitigation practices, though. I recall a conversation with an Indonesian friend at a coffeeshop in Banda Aceh. “My grandmother taught me that after every unusually prolonged period of dryness, a quake will strike Banda Aceh,” he told me. I promptly asked whether he also believed this . “Of course, I do. Indeed, I observed it myself in the past years,” he replied. This piece of information would deserve scientific investigation, it needs to be validated. If no science backs this view, it should be left aside.

Imagine how much indigenous knowledge has been accumulated in thousands years of human cultural development around this Planet. Scientifically validating this deep knowledge and incorporate it into warning systems could be key to build resilient societies in areas prone to natural hazards.

The Barge. The tsunami wave brought this huge barge 2 km inland. It has been kept as a memorial (JP/Sumatra, 2014)

The Boxing Day tsunami was an important learning event for science and humanity. It led to improvements in early warning safety procedures/systems for coastal settlements. Coastal towns are growing fast, and therefore resilience to natural hazards is a key to survival.
A decade later, psychologists at the Siyah Kuala University in Banda Aceh say that Acehnese have generally recovered from the trauma. Economists tell us of widespread optimism, as seen in the nation’s fast economic recovery, which grew even stronger than before the 2004 tsunami. The giant wave wiped away the hostility between the Indonesian government and the GAM, with a peace agreement signed in 2005. Finally, there is peace with God, the tsunami being His punishment for the moral (and factual) corruption of the Acehenese. Geology, history, and statistics, however, tell us that this peace with the elements could last only a few generations. Sooner or later the oceanic plates that press against each other will generate another colossal tide. Those who will master the crucial meaning of smong will have a better chance of survival. And those who learned from smong and applied it to other natural hazards could prove themselves more resilient to the globally changing environment.


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Thanks to Eric Marx for editing the test, improving language.

Thanks to PNY for supporting my environmental journalism projects.

Thanks to the Swiss Club of Science Journalists for supporting this project.

Heavy rains, strong wind, low tide, family fishing (JP/Sumatra, 2014)