03/31/2009, 00.00
INDONESIA
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Death toll continues to rise in "little tsunami" from dam collapse

by Mathias Hariyadi
The search for the missing continues. More than 300 homes have been swept away by a wave of 21 million cubic meters of water; 1,500 people have been left homeless. The local administration and the government are blaming each other.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - Work continues to find the more than 100 people who disappeared in the collapse of the Situ Gintung dam, near Tangerang, on the southwest edge of Jakarta, which took place on March 27. So far, 99 victims have been confirmed: these are mostly women, children, and elderly, but the number of dead is destined to increase, as more unidentified bodies continue to be found amid the rubble.

The wave that broke last Friday unleashed 21 million cubic meters of water and mud, sweeping away 300 homes, flooding another 200, and leaving 1,500 people homeless. Many of the victims are calling it a "little tsunami."

The Situ Gintung dam was built in 1930, during the Dutch colonial period. Originally, the reservoir covered a 31-hectare area, but in recent years it has been reduced to 21 hectares because of the rapid building of new homes on the shores of the dam and the surrounding area.

With the entire country caught up in the campaign for the legislative elections on April 9, the dam disaster has also become a political issue, to be resolved even before the actual emergency is. Various politicians have publicly criticized the local government for its negligence in maintaining the dam.

Amid the growing pressure on the Tangerang administration and the provincial government of Banten, dam chief Pitoyo Subandrio says that it is time to start taking responsibility for the incident: "I am ready to step down," he says, "if the mistake [that caused the tragedy] happened within my scope of responsibility."

Ciliwung and Cisadane are two large rivers that run through the district of Jakarta and Tangerang. Subandrio is responsible for the agency that manages the 10 dams built along the course of the two rivers in the two districts.

The police have not advanced any suspicions about responsibility for the disaster, but public opinion agrees in pointing to Subandrio as the main culprit, and together with him the management agency, guilty of failing to monitor the real conditions at the Situ Gintung dam.

Sources within the police say that Subandrio is also responsible for failing to warn the inhabitants of the area about the possible risk of the dam walls collapsing, which was discovered years ago.

Despite Subandrio's willingness to resign, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said that the collapse of the dam should be considered a simple natural disaster due to the heavy rainfall before March 27.

Identifying those responsible for the tragedy is not a simple matter. Since Indonesia adopted the system of regional autonomy (1999), it is no longer clear whether the Situ Gintung dam is still under the administration of the central government's Cisadane-Ciliwung Agency, which oversees the two rivers. "The problem is very technical," says Budi Widiantoro, head of Jakarta’s Public Works Agency. "The Situ Gintung is found in the Tangerang Regency which is under Jakarta authority.”

Widiantoro says that last year, the central government set aside 1.5 billion rupees (about 130,000 dollars) to maintain and improve the dam. Arbi Sanit, a political analyst, accuses the administrations of Tangerang and Banten, saying that they are mainly responsible for the negligence that led to the tragedy.

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