Smog (Indigenous Knowledge about Tsunamis)

Smong (Indigenous Knowledge About Tsunamis)

The word “Smong” comes from the Devayan language of Simeulue, a small island in Indonesia. There are different ideas about the origin of the word, but it describes the phenomena experienced by most tsunamis in Indonesia; an earthquake followed by the retreat of the sea and a huge tidal wave.

Although the phenomenon of tsunamis is widespread in Indonesia, and the country’s geological position puts it at high risk of tsunamis, tsunamis do not occur with such regularity that everyone is aware of the phenomenon, knows how to recognise it and what to do.

The first documented use of the word “Smong” and its incorporation into everyday life began after a devastating tsunami in January 1907. The survivors wanted to remind future generations of the many casualties, the dangers of tsunamis and how to behave in order to have the best chance of survival. The phenomenon behind the Smong is described in songs, poems and stories. They are often passed on from the older generation to the younger, at cultural events, celebrations or in everyday life. The contributions differ not only in their literary form, but also in their focus: some describe tsunamis as a natural part of their lives, others are warnings and advices, and still others are stories of loss.

While in many languages, including the internationally used Japanese word ‘tsunami’, the word ‘tsunami’ simply means ‘harbour wave’ or has a similarly descriptive meaning, the people of Simeulue associate the word “Smong” with much more through their stories. They have many associations with the word “Smong” that cause disaster risk reduction. First and foremost, they associate the phenomenon of the tsunami with the warning signals of earthquakes, the retreat of the ocean and the knowledge that a huge tidal wave could follow and wash over their island. The second aspect associated with the word “Smong” is the action everyone should take when threatened by a tsunami: run away from the sea and move to higher ground, warn people and tell them to evacuate, and – if possible – bring simple items to ensure survival. The last aspect is to tell future generations about Smong so that the disaster of 1907 does not happen again. Because of their knowledge and familiarity with tsunamis from their stories, people on the island flee to higher ground after an earthquake and warn each other. This saved many lives in the 2004 tsunami, even though the island was only about 60km from the epicentre. The Indonesian government and scientists were surprised that the tsunami, which claimed a staggering number of lives on other Indonesian islands, killed so few on Simeulue.



After Simeulue’s success story during the 2004 tsunami, the word “Smong” and the culture around it received international attention. The focus was on indigenous knowledge, its interpretation and cooperation in modern crisis risk reduction. Research was carried out into why the culture around Smong in Simeulue was so successful, and why songs and stories about tsunamis from other regions of Indonesia were not. There was also criticism of the lack of information in the old stories, and consideration of how to combine traditional indigenous knowledge with new methods. Modern versions of the songs were written and lyrics are added.

In interviews, many Simeulues estimated that without the 2004 tsunami, their knowledge and traditions would probably have been lost. However, the success story of Smong shows its relevance and value, and promotes the expansion and the continuity of the tradition.


The context in which the “Smong” culture has developed is one in which stories are shared: from the older to the younger generation, in the form of songs, stories and poems during celebrations and in everyday life. According to interviews with islanders, these traditions are threatened by the changes in activities brought about by modern media. At the same time, a long period without a catastrophe, in which the content of the stories and songs no longer seems relevant, is also a reason why the tradition seems less relevant and is less lived.

However, personal experiences passed down from generation to generation and the presence of the tsunami theme in everyday life through songs and stories mean that the information passed down is easily accessible and present. Thus, indigenous knowledge can be a powerful disaster preparedness tool that could be updated with modern knowledge and integrated into modern entertainment.


Copyright ENGAGE Project 2021