Morotai: History, Hazards, and Tourism

July 24-25

We arrived in Morotai Island, a short flight from Ternate. Flying over the large spider-like island of Halmahera, the interior landscape looked pristine and heavily forested, with some large scale natural resource operations around the perimeters, and some transmigration villages occupying some small pockets for settlement areas.

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Upon arrival the local disaster agency (BPBD), who attended our joint trainings in 2015 picked us up and we held a short meeting at their offices. They shared maps and information about the main hazards: last year tornadoes destroyed several homes; a tsunami in the 1980s; landslides. The main concern however, are the coastal hazards. We visited a site experiencing constant erosion problems from storms that increases in intensity during March and April, and bring higher intensity wave action. They lamented that every year they work with the public works agency to rebuild the seawall to protect this main road connecting the northern part of the island. Several communities have relocated and numerous other villages face relocation due to these coastal hazards.

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As a result of both geographic features, a unique history, and overall tourism potential, the government has designated the island as a special economic zone. This recent designation comes with increased budgets, and in the case of Morotai, has resulted in higher populations (currently about 62,000 people). Morotai is one of the furthest northern islands of Indonesia and is in close proximity to the Philippines making it of strategic sovereign importance for Indonesia. Morotai also played a strategic role in World War II, and the Battle of Morotai was acknowledged to be a key turning point in the pacific theater against Japanese forces. Finally, the combination of dive and surf tourism makes Morotai an ideal location. The national government is supporting a major tourism development plan, which has recently gotten underway. These plans are still not fully formed however, as there are transportation and access problems to draw vacationers to this remote location. Be that as it may, we saw plans under construction: structures being built for World War II museums and memorials, and new parks adjoined by a row of outdoor evening restaurants. We had excellent fish barbecues along the pier, which boasted a major sign of Morotai Daloha. We wondered about the connection to Hawaii’s aloha.

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We also wanted to interact with villages and to see the broader layout of Morotai Island District. The BPBD and the University of the Pacific invited us on one of their speedboats to see some of Morotai’s other small islands. They wanted to show us the increasingly popular tourist destination of Dodola Island, which at low tide forms a sand bridge that connects two different islands; or what has come to be called “heaven on earth.” The smaller islands we passed were mostly uninhabited but where there was access to water small fishing villages could also be found.

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In just one day we had learned a tremendous amount from our rapid vulnerability assessment, reminding us of the importance of local partnership and their commitment to the issues. Before returning to Ternate we held one final discussion with the BPBD office and our university partners. The BPBD has challenges in developing DRR plans and Contingency Plans. They have worked to certify a handful of “Resilient Villages” but imagine a much more holistic role for themselves. We are hopeful that the upcoming trainings and the partnership with universities can provide opportunities to overcoming these capacity challenges.

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