Earthquake-triggered 2018 Palu Valley landslides enabled by wet rice cultivation

Publication type

Journal Article

Research Area


Research Team

Geodesy Group

Research Project

Indonesia Seismology


The death toll and economic impact of an earthquake can be greatly exacerbated if seismic ground shaking triggers landslides. Earthquake-triggered landslides typically occur in two different contexts: localized failure of steep slopes and resulting landslides that pose a major threat to life in areas below; and lateral spreading of nearly flat sediment plains due to shaking-induced liquefaction, which can damage large areas of critical infrastructure. Unexpected catastrophic landsliding triggered by the 28 September 2018 earthquake at Palu, Indonesia did not occur in either typical context, but produced both destructive outcomes. Here, we show that alluvial ground failure in the Palu Valley was a direct consequence of irrigation creating a new liquefaction hazard. Aqueduct-supported cultivation, primarily of wet rice, raised the water table to near ground level, saturating sandy alluvial soils that liquefied in response to strong ground shaking. Large-displacement lateral spreads occurred on slopes of 1°. Slopes steeper than 1.5° sourced long-runout landslides and debris flows that swept through villages occupying the gentler slopes below. The resulting damage and loss of life would probably not have occurred in the absence of a raised water table. Earthquake-triggered landsliding of gentle, irrigated alluvial slopes is an under-recognized, but avoidable, anthropogenic hazard.

Publication Details


Nature Geoscience

Date Published


Subscribe to the EOS Newsletter

Stay in touch with the latest news, events, research, and publications from the Earth Observatory of Singapore.

Email is required

Email is wrong format

You Can Make a Difference

Partner with us to make an impact and create safer, more sustainable societies throughout Southeast Asia.
Make A Gift