Farouk Arnaz & Elisabeth Oktofani
Jakarta. The major eruption of Mount Merapi on Nov. 5, which blanketed surrounding areas in volcanic ash, poses a serious and ongoing threat to ancient temple complexes such as Borobudur.
Officials are concerned the acidic soot will hasten the wearing of the temples, Borobudur in particular, which is covered in up to 3 centimeters of ash.
The site was closed to the public after the eruptions began on Oct. 26, while the government has sent workers in to clean up the temple complex.
“Since Nov. 11, we’ve taken emergency action to keep Borobudur clear of ash by cleaning up 72 stupas and the main stupa, and wrapping them in plastic,” Junus Satrio Atmojo, the Culture and Tourism Ministry’s head of historical and archeological sites, said Saturday.
The government has allocated a total of Rp 600 million ($67,200) to clean up the Buddhist temples of Borobudur, Pawon and Mendut, as well as the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, he said.
That includes Rp 248 million for Borobudur.
“Cleaning up Borobudur and the three other temples requires that we be extra careful and work step by step to prevent the ash lodging in the pores of the rock surface,” Junus said.
“It’s not a question of hiring more people to help clean up, but of the equipment that we need to buy.”
He added that because the disaster had occurred toward the end of the fiscal year, the government was short of funds to procure the necessary equipment.
“Our experience from the Aceh tsunami in 2004 tells us that cultural heritage and historical buildings are always the last to be budgeted for in the disaster recovery fund, and that’s why we need outside donors,” he said.
“Donors don’t necessarily have to give us cash. We’d be grateful for items such as plastic sheets, hoses, baking soda and anything else we can use to clean the monuments.”
Junus added that Unesco, which lists Borobudur as a world heritage site, had only been able to offer sending an expert to gauge the damage, as it had no experience dealing with volcanic clean-ups.
“We politely declined, as we have plenty of Indonesian experts,” he said.
He added that authorities were in a race against time to clean up the temple and reopen it, given the high number of foreign tourists expected to visit Borobudur, with many booking trips months in advance.
Borobudur is the country’s most popular tourist attraction.
Temple officials have reopened the Borobudur yard and the first of the temple’s nine levels to the public, but the rest of the site remains closed for cleaning.
“That’s because we haven’t been able to remove all the volcanic ash covering the temple,” Iskandar M Siregar, head of technical services for Borobudur management, said on Saturday.
“At this time, we’re only allowing visitors to visit the temple yard and the first level of rock. Visitors are forbidden from climbing on any part of the temple.”
He said it could take up to four weeks to clear away all the ash coating the structure.
“We’re using brooms and dust pans to clean it up, so we can’t go any faster,” he said. “So far, we’ve collected 20 cubic meters of ash.” Iskandar said this represented less than a tenth of the total volcanic ash at the site.
He also rebuffed calls to wait for the rains to wash away the ash, pointing out that this would only complicate matters.
“That’s because the ash would wash into the temple’s drainage system and damage it,” he said.
Clean-up crews are trying as much as possible not to use mechanical equipment, which could damage the rock surface of the temple, he said.
Iskandar also said workers had not yet wrapped up the entire monument in plastic, and were prioritizing the top three levels, where the stupas are located.
“We have to hurry because the ash has a corrosive character, that accelerates the weathering of the stupas and stones,” Iskandar said.