Fri, 05 Sep 2003

Local vilagers banned from approaching Mt. Lewotobi

Yemris Fointuna, The Jakarta Post, Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

Mount Lewotobi in East Flores continued to spew ash, lava and other volcanic material on Thursday, forcing local authorities to increase warnings to prevent fatalities.

Local villagers have been banned from the volcano's slopes, said Stanis Tefa, secretary of the Natural Disaster Management and Refugee Coordination Board task force in the East Nusa Tenggara capital of Kupang.

He said an Alert One status was declared by the Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation director at the Lewotobi monitoring post.

"The status was increased to Alert One after volcanic activity significantly increased over the last 48 hours," Tefa said.

Mount Lewotobi in Wulanggitan subdistrict first erupted on Sunday. Minor and major eruptions have been recorded since.

The ash and fireballs have destroyed hundreds of hectares of crops and have sparked forest fires, which have continued to spread out of control around the volcano.

Thousands of refugees evacuated from around the mountain have begun to suffer from respiratory problems and cholera.

Tefa said many victims were suffering from acute respiratory tract infection (ARI) and cholera, as they were breathing white volcanic ash mixed with sulfur.

He said his office had provided around 3,000 masks and medical assistance to the refugees.

"The number of masks available there is still not enough, so the local health office is coordinating with related agencies to meet the high demand for more masks."

East Nusa Tenggara administration spokesman Johanis Kosapilawan said his office had asked rescue workers, police and military officers to be on full alert in anticipation of "extraordinary incidents" stemming from larger eruptions.

At least six villages that are home to more than 10,000 people have been affected by the volcanic activity. Many of the villagers have been plagued by ARI and cholera.

The worst-hit village is Hokeng Jaya, which has a population of around 2,300. The village is covered in volcanic ash measuring three to five-centimeters deep.

The villagers had also been forced to drink water contaminated with volcanic material, Tefa said.

Vegetables from the area could not be eaten because they were contaminated, while animals in the area had also suffered because of the contaminated vegetation.