Reducing risk is the name of the game writes Asia Sentinel.

Millions of Indonesians who live near the country’s more than 130 active volcanoes are constantly having to decide whether to evacuate or not. Supporting “volcano cultures” with up-to-date evidence and strong leaders is one way to save more lives, say experts.

“Communities balance the risks from the volcanoes with the benefits from living in such a fertile area,” Kate Crowley, the disaster risk reduction adviser for the Catholic Aid Agency for UK and Wales (CAFOD), told IRIN. According to Crowley and other experts, while some culturally accepted warnings serve to protect communities across the archipelago nation, others – such as the belief that rituals appease the supernatural entities that control eruptions – can also create a false sense of security.

“Communities have their own early warning systems based on tradition and natural signs, and [it can be a struggle for them] to believe scientific monitoring,” said Anat Prag, a supporting officer for Caritas, a humanitarian NGO in Indonesia. More than 76,000 people fled their homes and more than 200,000 were affected when Mount Kelud on Indonesia’s densely-populated Java Iisland erupted in February, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). However, some residents insisted on staying behind.

Pic: AP.

Mount Merapi, between Yogyakarta and Central Java, is Indonesia’s most dangerous volcano, with eruptions every two to three years sending pyroclastic flows – 815 degrees Celsius sulphuric gases mixed with debris – downhill at up to 240km per hour. More than one million people live within a 10km radius of the summit, putting them at constant risk. Hundreds of lives have been lost due to its eruptions since the 1990s.

But volcanoes also offer a pull factor for farmers. Soil fed by volcanic ash is highly fertile and has attracted settlements on and near the slopes of volcanoes. Pyroclastic flows generally reach 10-15km from the peak; the blasts are most intense within the first 10km.

Merapi’s regular eruptions are a testing ground for humanitarian interventions – including those attempting to balance local knowledge with technical protection measures.

“Belief systems in Merapi have not yet been interpreted for risk reduction. If people don’t understand… what they are being told, and it isn’t relevant to them, they won’t accept it and they will get killed [by eruptions],” said Crowley.

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