Photo courtesy of Jawa Pos.
The remoteness of the Mentawai islands has proven then main difficulty in getting aid to victims of the October 26 tsunami. Modern warning and rescue techniques are ill-adapted to the tiny fishing villages with no roads, electricity or cell-phone coverage. In the aftermath of the disaster, villagers are finding help from an unlikely source: surfers.
Over thirty coastal villages of remote Indonesian archipelago were either totally destroyed or severely damaged by the tsunami. The latest official death toll stands at 431 but the exact number of casualties in the most isolated villages remains unknown.
The Mentawais, one of the poorest and least developed Indonesian regions, have long been a favourite travel location for surfers and nature-lovers around the world. Frenchman Gilles Bordessoule is the founder of Mentawai Adventure, a sustainable tourism initiative that operates the Siloinak Surf Resort. Along with fellow tourism professionals, he is actively looking for ways in which the small community of western surfers can help prevent a tragedy of this scale from hitting the archipelago again.

Photos of rescue efforts in the Mentawais

Injured child treated at refugee camp in Sikakap. Photo courtesy of Jawa Pos.
Volunteer carrying emergency aid to tsunami-hit village. Photo courtesy of Jawa Pos.
Helicopters drop goods off at Sikakap, South Pagai. Photo courtesy of Jawa Pos.
Aerial view of destroyed village of Madobak, South Pagai. Photo courtesy of Jawa Pos.
Post written with France 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.

“Surfers, with their small boats and in-depth knowledge of where each village is, can really help”

There are no roads leading up to these villages, and rough seas and strong winds make accessing them by boat very difficult. Two vessels of the Indonesian Navy and the ferry lines have delivered tons of emergency aid to Sikakap, the only harbour in the area, but there is a lack of small vessels capable of navigating the shallow waters that lead right up to the beaches in front of the villages. This is where the surfers can really help, with their small boats and their in-depth knowledge of where every beach and village is. The Mentawai Surf Charter Boat’s Association is very active in this field, and has sent three small vessels. A ship chartered by the American surfer Matt Georges (Last Mile Operation) has left Padang, loaded with food and medical supplies and is on-site, anchoring in front of the most isolated hamlets.
“The only sure way to transmit a tsunami warning to these isolated populations is by radio”
Although the Indonesian tsunami warning was operational (an alert was broadcast on national TV stations 10 minutes after an earthquake hit off the coast of Sumatra), most of the Mentawai costal villages did not receive it because they have no electrical power, phone land lines, cell phone coverage or television. The most convenient way to transmit a tsunami warning to these populations would be to use the Mentawai-language radio frequencies broadcasted from Padang that they listen to daily, using small battery powered radios. We at the Siloinak Surf Resort are currently approaching these local radio stations to offer them financial help to establish a permanent protected communication channel with the Indonesian tsunami warning agencies.
“Tsunami-proof communal houses”
Ideally, each village should be equipped with a solar-powered Indonesian satellite phone, the rates of which are affordable even to poor fishermen. They would be operated by the village grocery-store, church or village chief, and could be used as an advanced warning system managed by the population themselves. We are trying to raise money distribute these phones to the villages for free.
Traditional Mentawai Uma. Photo posted on Wikimedia Commons by Alex Lapuerta.
Another immediate solution to increase the safety of the population is the construction by villagers themselves of a communal house, called Uma. In addition to being used for ceremonies, weddings, social gatherings, it would provide a ready-made shelter in case of tsunami. Built using the traditional Mentawai architecture and materials, such houses can sustain a Richter 8 earthquake at the epicentre.These Uma would have to be located at a minimum of 20 metres above sea level or 1000 metres inland. A 20x10 meter shelter, which can safely house over 100 people, costs only 5,000 USD (3,561 euros) to build.”
To make a donation or learn more about Siloinak Surf Resort’s efforts to help tsunami-hit populations, contact Gilles Bordessoule at or consult the Sustainable Development section of Mentawai Adventure’s website.