Learning From Aceh's Recovery: Tsunami Lessons Five Years On

In Aceh, the area hardest hit five years ago, homes have been rebuilt, families reunited and a stable government installed in a province that was battling a deep separatist conflict prior to the tsunami.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Emotional aftershocks struck the world in the wake of the December 26 tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people across 13 countries. The disaster unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of aid amounting to more than US$7 billion for Indonesia alone.

Five years later, those who witnessed the disaster or took part in recovery efforts are reflecting on the lessons learned.

In Aceh, the area hardest hit by the giant wave, homes have been rebuilt, families reunited and a stable government installed in a province that was battling a deep separatist conflict prior to the tsunami. The city has recovered so well that most of the international aids organizations have pulled up stakes and gone home.

Some aid workers still idle about town, bringing small dollars to the dozens of businesses born when volunteer numbers reached into the thousands. But among Aceh's residents, concerns have shifted from fears of another disaster to fears about job opportunities.

When I met with him last year, Jonathan Papoulidis, then-chief of the UN Office of the Recovery Coordinator (UNORC), said development progress had been a "stabilizing" force that allowed the new government to get its grounding. A lack of employment, however, creates different worries about Aceh's stability.

Uneven aid distribution and cash-for-work programs that create a culture reliant on handouts have in many ways broken down Aceh's social fabric. The head of the psychosocial program at the American Red Cross expressed concern that financial fears could lead to violence.

These effects have become part and parcel of aid and recovery efforts, but some groups have established a lasting presence in Aceh and have gone far to support economic development. Mercy Corps, for instance, has helped train farmers in rice cultivation techniques and provided them with access to micro-finance.

Accomplishments in structural rebuilding also are noteworthy, said the former UNORC chief, whose office was created to streamline aid efforts. But rebuilding can often serve to legitimize progress this long after a disaster, when what is important is the kind of society being created.

In Lambung village, one of the UN's models of development, houses resemble cookie cutouts, each one a square concrete box replicated into the hundreds. Neighborhoods have been rebuilt for ease of escape rather than incorporating the winding, jungle roads that community residents once liked to stroll.

As the world marks the five-year anniversary of the tsunami, it is finding most victims have picked up the pieces of their lives and are moving forward. Most of the 127,000 houses destroyed by the tsunami have been rebuilt with the $6.7 billion in aid that did eventually flow in, according to the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency for Ache and Nias.

But "building back better," former President Bill Clinton's slogan for the rebuilding effort, requires more than sturdy homes and evacuation routes. It requires listening to and fulfilling the needs of communities that are forever altered by natural disasters.

A test came in September, when a 7.6-magnitude quake struck off the coast of western Sumatra, sparking a rapid emergency relief response. Affected villagers later said too much time was taken up with needs assessment, preventing aid from reaching their communities. They also said more thought needs to go into aid distribution, explaining that instant noodles provide little assistance when communities lack clean water.

Earthquakes and tectonic activity have become increasingly commonplace in Indonesia. Over the past two decades more than 40 large-scale earthquakes have hit the country, with 15 of them generating tsunamis.

To mitigate the extent of such disasters, the Red Cross and Red Crescent have helped create community-based risk reduction programs that perform small-scale prevention efforts, such as drainage maintenance to prevent flooding during monsoon season.

That is a positive step, but Hening Parlan, executive director of Humanitarian Forum Indonesia, which is made up of NGOs dealing with disaster management, said priority still goes to emergency warning systems rather than disaster prevention.

For three years following the December 26 tsunami the Indonesian government had no budget for disaster management, with the national coordinating board that headed the country's disaster management program focused on emergency response. A 2007 law changed that focus to risk management, but a related regulation that requires local governments to establish disaster management units has been slow to take hold.

Some blame increased regional autonomy and protectionism for holding up volunteer access to disaster sites. Dr. Josia Rastandi, chairman of the Structural Reliability Testing Division at the University of Indonesia, blamed human error for the massive loss of life in Indonesian earthquakes.

"Many houses and public buildings did not meet quake-proof regulations," Rastandi said at a press gathering following the Padang temblor. If the buildings in Padang had been constructed according to 2002 building codes, the extent of the damage might have been minimal.

For now, Jakarta is the only city that has a body tasked with checking the structural design of buildings - and even this is only done for structures over eight stories tall. In 2006 the Ministry of Public Works produced a proper building guidance, but the publication has reached few eyes outside the country's capital.

Some groups have called for a ministry dedicated to disaster mitigation and relief, while others continue to advocate stricter building codes. It's true that progress has been made, but lessons about combating inequality and bureaucratic delays are still surfacing in Aceh.

At Sebagai Cobaan, one of the province's mass burial grounds, a lose sign board spins in the wind, repeating the Koranic verse "Every soul shall have a taste of death." An astounding 14,264 people are buried beneath a grass enclosure the size of two tennis courts. In nearby Lambung village, life takes on a picture of normalcy. This community benefited from high levels of education and community support that made redevelopment easier. Others communities were not so lucky.

Popular in the Community