The Sulawesi Tsunami and the Radical Contingency of the World
Photo Credit: AFP
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Sulawesi Tsunami and the Radical Contingency of the World

Oct. 02, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The magnitude 7.5 earthquake and the resulting tsunami which struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi on Friday September 28, 2018 have lifted the veil on the radical contingency of the world. While humankind is generally lulled by its technological mastery and regularization of the forces of nature, natural disasters such as the one which struck Sulawesi (as well as the occasional manmade disasters which result in mass deaths) reveal the efficacy of such technological apparatuses to be radically contingent on forces that are essentially beyond anybody’s control.

By Sunday September 30, the official death toll of the Sulawesi disaster stood at 832, making it “the deadliest in more than a decade in Indonesia,” but the government and experts expect the final death toll to be in the thousands. Due to the destruction of road and communications infrastructure by the earthquake and tsunami, the initial rescue efforts have been located in the town of Palu, the provincial capital of Central Sulawesi, “where buildings collapsed and waves reached as high as 18 feet.” Rescue workers “hold grave fears for many of the towns” around the coastal city of Donggala, as these were closer to the epicenter of the earthquake and tsunami. The initial video footage emerging from Donggala reveals catastrophic damage: “Homes lie mangled, the tarmac of the road has been so uprooted it sits on top of rooftops and cars have been thrown upside down.”

The technological apparatuses which had been installed to mitigate the risks of the catastrophe which finally did occur in Sulawesi proved to be inadequate. While the Indonesian government had invested in a high-tech network of tsunami sensors following the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that had “killed more than 230,000 people in the region,” these had been “stuck in a testing phase for years” and had been “put on hold,” and the government was instead left to “rely on limited information from existing tidal gauge stations.” Unfortunately, the closest tidal gauge, which was 200 km from Palu, “only recorded an ‘insignificant,’ six-centimeter wave and did not account for the giant waves near Palu,” prompting the Indonesian government to lift its tsunami warning just 34 minutes after the earthquake. And even if the deadly tsunami had been detected, there would have been no warning sirens as power outages caused by the earthquake meant that there was “no electricity to power the sirens.” Video footage shared on social media taken after the earthquake struck but just before the tsunami arrived showed “people in the city of Palu carrying on with their normal activities as the tsunami approached, seemingly unaware of the impending catastrophe.”

In the absence of a tsunami warning, many earthquake survivors — including “hundreds of people” who had gathered for the Nomini music festival at Talise beach in Palu — were caught unawares when the tsunami, with waves reaching six meters in height, suddenly struck. Geologists saw the Sulawesi tsunami as a puzzling event, as the type of earthquake which struck Sulawesi was not known to be the type which generates tsunamis, and experts have speculated that “there was a landslide under the sea which displaced a lot of water and caused the tsunami.” The narrow shape of the bay could also have been a factor in the destructiveness of the tsunami, as it could have “amplified” the height and force of the destructive wave.

The unsettling existential question that is raised by this consideration is whether we in the same position as that of the people recorded in the short videos of the Sulawesi tsunami just before it struck — carrying on with life blissfully unaware of the disaster that was less than a minute away.

Apart from the tsunami, the earthquake also triggered massive soil liquefaction in the affected areas, causing buildings to collapse and be swept away in the resulting mudflows. In Petobo subdistrict, “it is feared that about 2,000 people in the subdistrict are dead, with homes having been dragged away by the mud,” while “another subdistrict in West Palu district … was sunken to the ground,” with “thousands were estimated to be dead.” When the ground itself becomes liquid, humankind’s technology of construction literally collapses.

In his book The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot (1986) notes that, for those who did not experience it, the Disaster “de-scribes,” such that “it escapes the very possibility of experience” and is “the very limit of writing” (p. 7). Even with the snippets of video footage taken by those who were caught up in the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami, outside observers can only very loosely imagine what being in the disaster must have been like. For those who found themselves in the disaster, seemingly insignificant choices turned out to be life-or-death decisions. Ng Kok Choong, a Singaporean who was in Palu for a paragliding competition, had just left his hotel when the earthquake struck, and he and his friend “were just 50m away from the Mercure Hotel building when it collapsed.” Over at Palu Airport, air traffic controller Anthonius Gunawan Agung stayed at his post when the earthquake struck to guide an airplane to take off safely, but he lost his life when he was forced to jump from his fourth floor office in the air traffic control tower when the roof collapsed.

While technology has seemingly succeeded in allowing humankind to tame nature and transform vast swathes of the natural world into spaces for human use, events like the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami show that such control is illusory. The Sulawesi disaster is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2010) would describe as a “black swan” event, given its “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability” (p. xxii). The philosopher Bertrand Russell (2010) famously used the example of a chicken to illustrate how “crude expectations of uniformity” could mislead someone into believing that events in the future would always proceed just as they had in the past. The tragic chicken, believing that the farmer would always continue to feed it, suffers an unpleasant surprise when “the man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead” (p. 44). What events like the Sulawesi disaster highlight to us is that we are in the position of the chicken. Due to the stable regularities of our everyday lives, we innocently expect that these regularities will continue to persist into the future. However, on occasion black swan events occur which are forceful enough to tear up these regularities and expose the radical contingency that the world is actually built on. Such events reveal that “there are no natural laws that will protect us from suffering or death, and that our lives of flourishing are absolutely contingent on factors beyond our control, just as Russell’s chicken’s comfortable life was contingent on the goodwill of the farmer” (Lim, 2013, p. 132). The unsettling existential question that is raised by this consideration is whether we in the same position as that of the people recorded in the short videos of the Sulawesi tsunami just before it struck — carrying on with life blissfully unaware of the disaster that was less than a minute away.


Asokan, A. (2018, September 30). Narrow escape: The Singaporean man who survived the Indonesia quake-tsunami. Channel NewsAsia.

Beech, H. and Suhartono, M. (2018, September 30). Indonesia tsunami toll climbs above 800. ‘It is very bad.’ New York Times.

Blanchot, M. (1986). The Writing of the Disaster. (A. Smock, Trans.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ellis-Petersen, H. (2018, October 1). Indonesia tsunami: death toll expected to rise as rescuers try to reach Donggala—live. The Guardian.

Indonesia tsunami sensors missed huge waves: Official. (2018, September 29). Reuters.

Lim, A. C. H. (2013). Cambodia and the Politics of Aesthetics. New York: Routledge.

Long and narrow bay likely made tsunami more devastating in Palu. (2018, September 30). South China Morning Post.

Palma, S., and Bland, B. (2018, September 30). Indonesia tsunami relief efforts hit by infrastructure problems. Financial Times.

Palu air traffic controller dies after jumping off collapsing tower during Sulawesi quake. (2018, September 29). The Jakarta Post.

Roughneen, S. and Bengali, S. (2018, September 30). Indonesia’s death toll headed well past 1,200, with several coastal towns still to be heard from. Los Angeles Times.

Russell, B. (2010). The Problems of Philosophy. Los Angeles: Indo-European Publishing.

Sangadji, R. and Kahfi, K. (2018, October 1). Quake-triggered mudflow flattens Palu villages, thousands feared dead. The Jakarta Post.

Taleb, N. N. (2010). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House.

Tsunami warning systems in Indonesia missed the giant wave that killed more than 800 people. (2018, October 1). AP.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *